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The Question

(Submitted April 14, 1997)

Perhaps you can settle a heated debate between my wife and I and thereby preserve domestic tranquility.

Can you visually locate and observe SATELLITES from a rural area (Wisconsin) with the unaided, naked eye?

The Answer

We don't get called on for domestic disputes too often, but here goes...

You can see satellites pass overhead from a dark site, such as rural Wisconsin. What you see is sunlight reflected from the satellite: since the satellite is higher up in the sky, it may not be in the Earth's shadow even though you are (otherwise it would not be night!). You can tell that an object you see is a satellite rather than a plane or star because it will move steadily across the night sky over the period of a few minutes, often "disappearing" as it crosses into the Earth's shadow. As the night progresses, you will see satellites "disappear" closer to the horizon until after several hours after sunset, even satellites in low Earth orbit (about 200-800 miles above the Earth's surface) will be in the Earth's shadow. Satellites in geosynchronous orbits are high enough (about 22,000 miles up) that they will almost always be sunlight, but they are too far away for them to be visible.

The space station Mir occasionally passes overhead in the evening sky in the United States after sunset and can be seen. You can check for information on Mir passes with astronomy magazines. There may be similar information available (though I have not seen it) for the space shuttle during their flights and/or for other large satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope.

We hope this settles your domestic issue amicably...

Jesse Allen
for "Ask an Astrophysicist"

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