May 12, 2004

Jupiterand the Space Station


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Jupiter and the Space Station

The International Space Station makes a series of bright passes over the USA this week. On May 13th it will eclipse the planet Jupiter.





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May 12, 2004: On May 13th, weather permitting, sky watchers up and down the US east coast can see the International Space Station (ISS) glide by the planet Jupiter. The ISS looks like a slow-moving meteor, as bright as Jupiter itself. When the two converge ... it's going to be beautiful.


Right: The International Space Station.

The encounter will be widely visible from Alabama, Georgia, parts of North Carolina and Tennessee, Washington D.C., West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and all the states of New England. Most people in those areas will see the ISS pass mere degrees from Jupiter. A few observers are going to see the station actually eclipse the giant planet.

The "path of totality," only about 80-meters wide, runs from Alabama to Maine. Viewed from inside this narrow corridor, the space station will pass right in front of Jupiter. It only takes a split-second for the ISS to cross the planet, but during that instant, Jupiter's cloud belts and its largest moons will wink in and out among the station's gangly solar arrays and modules.

Space station transit expert Thomas Fly has prepared an ephemeris for this encounter: Click to view a list of times, latitudes and longitudes where the Jupiter-eclipse can be observed. If you want to get inside the path of totality, try using a GPS receiver to guide you to the listed coordinates.




Above: The path of totality for the May 13th eclipse of Jupiter by the International Space Station. Click to download a map-data file; use it with Microsoft Streets and Trips to zoom into your local area. Credit: Thomas Fly's ISS Transit Alert Service.

No matter where you live in the eastern USA, the best time to look will be shortly after 9:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. CDT) on Thursday, May 13th. Step outside a few minutes early, and tilt your head straight up. Note: lying flat on a blanket is more comfortable. The brightest "star" overhead is Jupiter. The space station will approach Jupiter from the southwest. Be patient; the encounter could take place as late as 9:38 EDT, depending on your exact location.




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Although Jupiter and the space station will seem close together, they're really far apart. Jupiter is 753 million km from Earth this week, while the space station is in Earth orbit, only about 400 km above you. These distances work out nicely. At a range of 400 km, the space station's solar arrays span an angle (38 arcseconds) approximately equal to Jupiter's diameter--just right for an eclipse.

Astronomers inside the path of totality can get a close-up view of the eclipse simply by pointing their telescopes at Jupiter and waiting for the space station to arrive. Typical backyard telescopes are large enough to resolve the station's solar arrays. Because the split-second encounter happens so fast, video recording is recommended. A digital video camera suitably coupled to the telescope can capture many crisp images of the station as it flits past Jupiter.


Right: Ulrich Beinert of Germany recorded this movie of the ISS using an 8-inch telescope and a digital video camera. He hand guided the telescope--hence the "jitters." [More]


Even if you're not in the right place to see the eclipse, you can still see the ISS, which is making many bright passes over the United States this week. To find out exactly when to look, visit one of these three popular web sites: Chris Peat's Heavens Above, Science@NASA's J-Pass or NASA's SkyWatch. Each will ask for your zip code or city, and respond with a list of suggested spotting times.

It's a lovely sight, the space station, gliding overhead among the stars and planets. Bright. Silent. Inhabited. Don't miss it!