Celebration of Space - May 12, 2023

The International Space Station (ISS) passes Mars and the Pleiades in this fantastic image captured by Robert Horton of Brown University.

The International Space Station (ISS) passes Mars and the Pleiades in this fantastic image captured by Robert Horton of Brown University.

Starting yesterday, May 11, 2023, the International Space Station (ISS) has returned to the annual period when all passes of the station, from dusk to dawn, are visible. This happens every year around the Summer Solstice, and is a result of the Northern Hemisphere being tilted towards the Sun. When we view a satellite or station passing over, what we see is just sunlight reflecting off of the satellites solar panels, labs, or reflective structure. Any light emitted by the station is just too dim to be seen at the average 200 mile distance of the station. So the station needs to be in direct sunlight when it passes over, while observers down on Earth are in darkness, or at least twilight. During the times around the Summer Solstice, the station will end up completing every pass, over our location, in direct sunlight, making the station visible. It takes the ISS 90 minutes to complete one full orbit around Earth, which will make the station visible every 90 minutes. Because of the orbital path of the station, which is inclined 51° to Earth’s equator, the ISS will appear over different parts of the sky with each pass. In 2023, we will have two pass cycles that will offer up this type of viewing. The current cycle will only last until Monday, May 15th, after which the station will only be visible during the evening. But in June we will have another go of all night passes that will last longer. Here are some notable passes for the coming weekend and next week:

Fri, May 12 at 9:26 pm, starting in the SW, rising to 56°, heading towards the ENE
Sat, May 13 at 8:38 pm, starting in the SSW, rising to 31°, heading towards the ENE
Sat, May 13 at 10:15 pm, starting in the W, rising to 34°, heading towards the NE
Sun, May 14 at 9:26 pm, starting in the WSW, rising to 53°, heading towards the NE
Mon, May 15 at 8:37 pm, starting in the SW, passing directly overhead, and setting over the NE ← Amazing pass!!
Tue, May 16 at 9:26 pm, starting in the W, rising to 26°, heading towards the NE
Wed, May 17 at 8:37 pm, starting in the W, rising to 37°, heading towards the NE

Note that these pass times are applicable to Southern New England, and are acceptable for the entire Northeast region. We are only listing the best evening passes here, though if you want a daily list of all passes, be sure to visit the Frosty Drew Daily Satellite Pass Prediction utility every day, which will display all bright satellite passes for the next overnight period.

Now that the Moon has waned into the morning sky, and continues its orbit towards the conjunction (the New Moon), which occurs next Friday, May 19, 2023, dark sky viewing is back. Being that we are now nearly half way through May, the Milky Way is just about to become quite visible before midnight, shining brightly until predawn kicks in. The spring and summertime view of the Milky Way is the one that everyone has on their bucket list. It is when we can see the bright galactic nucleus, and the spiral arms of the galactic plane span the night sky. Starting tonight, and continuing until nearly the end of the month, a view of the Milky Way can be had. With the best dates to catch a view occurring between May 17th and May 26h. To catch a view, you will need to be a good distance from the city, because viewing the Milky Way requires very little to no light pollution. Plan a location that has a wide open view of the night sky, and be there by 12:30 am. If you can’t think of a spot that meets these requirements, think Ninigret Park (home to Frosty Drew campus), which is the best spot in Rhode Island to see the Milky Way, and the most accessible spot in nearly all of New England.

When visiting a site, you will want to be respectful to others, and the night sky, by figuring out how to turn off your headlights and daytime driving lights before leaving your home, and keeping them off while at the location. You do not need a flashlight, or any light, for that matter, to walk around in the dark, all you need is 15 minutes to allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness. So don’t bring a light with you. If planning to capture a photo of the Milky Way, you do not need a flash or metering, so be sure to disable those features of your camera, because all they will do is interfere with your view and everyone else’. It is certainly worthwhile to read up on how to view in a non invasive manner.

Once you are ready to observe, looking towards the southeast will reveal the galactic nucleus, unless you are out closer to the predawn hours, when it will be more so towards the southwest. Laying on your back with your feet oriented towards the south will give you the best view. Though April and May will give you the best views from Ninigret Park, the Milky Way will be strikingly visible through August at that location. So take a night, and head out for an unforgettable view of the galaxy that we are part of, and remind yourself that the view you have is only possible because of the lack of unnecessary area lighting.

Scott MacNeill
Scott MacNeill
Entry Date:
May 12, 2023
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Scott MacNeill's Columns
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