I don’t remember the first time I saw a satellite in the night sky.
In the stargazing of my memory, it is always late summer. I am lying on a dock on a lake in the woods of northern Wisconsin. It’s unseasonably cold; I’m in my pajamas, but wrapped in blankets. I hear waves lap at the rowboats, gently slapping the dock. Five feet beneath my head, crayfish crawl on the sandy lake bottom. Somewhere out in the blackness, a loon calls across the water.
But all I see is the sky before me—an infinitely cavernous, deep purple dome containing the universe. As the earth spins and the night gets blacker, the stars multiply before my eyes. The Milky Way arcs brilliantly across the sky, wrapping around my horizon as if it were about to hug me.
A meteor streaks overhead—a fireball, trailing smoke. The violent contrail is illuminated by the meteor’s own glow, millions of joules wandering the solar system for billions of years, transmuted to heat and light in the blink of an eye.
My eyes wander through the field of stars, each one seeming to bloom into ten more in my periphery. If I squint at one hard enough, can I make out the planets that must be surrounding it? The civilizations that must be inhabiting them?
And then, out of the corner of my eye—a moving star. Not blinking, not moving slowly like an airplane: a satellite, shining faintly on snatches of stolen sunlight, racing from one horizon to the next. How incredible, I think, that something from the hands of man could move among the stars.
It still seems that way to me to this day. The last time I saw the International Space Station was almost a year ago. I was visiting Michigan State as a prospective grad student and the entire department had gone out that night to a bar to watch the Spartans mens basketball team play in the NCAA tournament. The Spartans were winning and the place was getting louder by the basket when one of the grads checked his watch and announced that the ISS was about to make a pass overhead. And so a few of us pulled ourselves away from the game and left the crowd behind and stood in the parking lot in the chilly March night and waited.
The International Space Station is now by far the largest man-made object to have ever orbited the earth. What began as a single modest module at the beginning of construction in 1998 has grown steadily in the decade since, its multiplying trusses and pods sprouting wings of silicon so that it now measures 109 meters from one of its massive solar panel arrays to the other. And so while I was expecting to catch that faint speck out of the corner of my eye from childhood, what we saw instead was a veritable torch soaring up from the treeline, far brighter than any star in the sky. It traced a bold arc 200 miles over our upturned faces, jaws dropped in amazement, fading from view as it sailed on ceaselessly, bearing three souls softly into the night.
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All of that is a very roundabout way of linking to something I thought was very cool: the ISSwave project, a grass-roots Twitter campaign to get people out to look at the ISS as it passes overhead and wave to the humans inside. They have a map and a gallery of people who submitted their waves via Twitter.
(h/t to the Bad Astronomer)