Is it a plane? Is it a UFO? No, it is the ISS
This Friday evening, a friend phoned me and as soon as I received the call, he exclaimed, “Zain, go outside. Quick!” Walking towards the balcony, I calmly asked if he was watching a moving object in the sky. “Err … yes”. “That is the ISS,” I said as I opened our balcony’s door, “and it is passing near the North Star just now”. “That is the what?”
By now I was outside and looking at the slowly moving beacon in the darkening sky. “That is the International Space Station or ISS, it just made a routine pass over Karachi and there are people aboard it”.
“Such a bright object can’t be a satellite,” he exclaimed. I told him it was in fact the largest satellite ever put in Earth’s orbit, it gets markedly brighter during certain passes and the astronauts in it have internet. They have also photographed Karachi at night from up there. “When’s the next pass?!”
I wasn’t surprised at my friend’s reaction because I’ve witnessed similar responses from other people. Many don’t realise that some very dazzling sights can be seen in the sky. The media has been abuzz these days with news of an asteroid almost half as big as a football field that passed uncomfortably close to Earth last Friday at 7.82 kilometers per second. Although the space rock, which was discovered last February and dubbed 2012 DA14, posed no risk of collision with Earth, it has passed closer than the multitudes of communication and navigation satellites circling Earth and was easy to see as a briskly moving dot using binoculars throughout Pakistan. Skywatching buffs in Karachi and other cities got together around the midnight of 15th Feb ‘13 to watch and photograph the object.
It is amazing what you can see even without binoculars or a telescope if you gaze skywards at the right time. Last February, I was flying to Jeddah late at night seated next to a window in a delayed flight of a PIA 747. I was awed by the sight of the lit cities and towns that drifted below us. I could almost feel as if I was orbiting the Earth in the ISS. Then I put a pillow behind my head to shield the window glass from reflecting the cabin lights. Several minutes passed, and lo and behold, I could see the misty band of our home galaxy, the Milky Way! I have seen it several times during our rutjugas – skywatching and sight-seeing trips to Balochistan and Sindh – but I found it hard to believe I should see it on my first trans-country flight.
A galaxy is basically a city of billions of stars. Galaxies also have numerous massive clouds of dust just the way human cities have lots of dirt and dust. And just like human cities are surrounded by suburbs, galaxies have suburbs which are home to smaller populations of stars.
From the airplane window, I was also admiring the king of globular clusters, Omega Centauri, with my unaided eyes. And then the most memorable thing happened – a bright meteor streaked across the sky! How many frequent travelers can claim having seen a meteor while flying at 40’000ft? Not many, I guess, and perhaps the only experience that beats this is watching a meteor from space itself. That is just what astronaut Ron Garan did from the International Space Station in August 2011:
Of course, a bright meteor is a jaw-dropping sight even for us Earth-bound urban folks. Paola-Castillowas stuck in a jam on Oct. 17, 2012 in Northern California when she, instead of honking the horn, glanced skywards and saw a blazing meteor. She took this photo using her cellphone while the meteor fragmented during its fiery passage through the Earth’s atmosphere. The next time you’re in a traffic jam, try looking at the sky if it is clear.
It doesn’t even have to be night for a bright meteor to entrance you. On the Sunday morning of 22nd April 2012, a bright ball of light traveling east to west was seen over the skies of central and northern California. Lisa Warren shot it from Reno, Nevada:
What if the sky is partly cloudy? Don’t despair. Remember the wry Smiley Face that appeared in the western sky on the partly overcast evening of 1st Dec 2008? It was the crescent Moon and the planets Venus and Jupiter very close together in the sky, peeking through the clouds every now and then.
Then of course there was Pakistan’s flag – or as the media put it, the initials of two leading politicians – in the sky in June 2007 when the planet Venus was occulted or hidden behind the Moon. Many likened the pre-occultation spectacle to the Urdu alphabet “noon” and the post-occultation orientation to the Urdu “bay”. Oh boy.
It’s surprising how many people including several astronomy enthusiasts missed the twice-a-lifetime transit of Venus last June just because they did not look skywards at the right moment. A number of Karachiites mistook the thick haze that morning for thin clouds, and since it was a working day, did not look again. When the sun did become visible about half an hour after sunrise, it was so dim that you had to search hard for it. So its blindingly bright disk was shielded to a level well below that which can damage eyesight and an idyllic glance showed Venus as a speck on the sun to anyone with keen sight. The next transit of Venus does not happen until December 2117.
Sunsets and sunrises are often awe-inspiring sights even, but the sunrise of 22nd July 2009 from Karachi was different. The sun that morning had risen partially eclipsed by the Moon.
Mention the word “comet” to someone and they’ll more likely than not say “Halley’s comet?” Few know there are other comets, although rare, which can become much brighter. One March evening in 1997, I found a twin-tailed comet over the western horizon from our Karachi apartment. I fondly remember watching it with my mother over the next several evenings and wondering why it had two tails. Even though this comet hung in the post-dusk sky for nearly two months and still holds the record for the comet with the longest duration of visibility without optical aid, it was missed by the general urban populace of Pakistan. It has been 16 years since this sensational comet Hale-Bopp appeared and the northern hemisphere is yet to see a similarly bright comet.
The talk of naked eye curiosities in the sky would naturally be incomplete if we do not mention the crescent Moon. As an avid sky watching enthusiast, I can testify that the official ruwiyat in our country is correct 95 per cent of the times. If the majority of our people looked for the crescent Moon at the start of every month instead of just for Meethi Eid, the dilemma of multiple Eids that we face every year would likely not have been plaguing us. But that is the topic for another blog.
The writer is an engineer by profession. He has been into skywatching since age 10, is an active member of local astronomy clubs and loves doing outreach sessions and workshops about practical astronomy. He can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.