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Our Big, Unnatural Satellite

There’s work overhead on the ISS

Astronaut Terry Virts works outside the International Space Station February 21. <<photo courtesy of NASA>>

Thursday evening the waxing gibbous moon stands above the constellation Orion, appearing as if it were the hunter’s head in profile. The next night it is above and to the left of Betelgeuese, Orion’s shoulder, and the two form a nice line with Rigel, the hunter’s foot. Saturday Luna is below the twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, and above Procyon, the lead star in the constellation Canis Minor, the Little Dog. Off to the east is brilliant Jupiter. Sunday the moon rests in the middle of a triangle formed by Pollux, Procyon and Jupiter. Come Monday, Luna is just five degrees south of Jupiter. Tuesday the moon is to the upper right of Regulus, with Jupiter well above them both. Then on Wednesday, the moon, Jupiter and Regulus form a loose triangle.
    While the moon is our only natural satellite, countless manmade satellites orbit the earth. You’ve likely seen some and presumed they were airliners passing overhead in the night. The International Space Station, however, stands out from the pack, shining brighter than except the sun and moon and zipping across the sky like a shooting star.
    This past week, on February 21 and 25, astronauts aboard the ISS completed two of three scheduled space walks to prepare it for future commercial dockings. The third is planned for Sunday, March 1.
    The ISS was originally designed to receive docking space shuttles, which were secured alongside a berthing port using the station’s robotic arm. Unmanned cargo vessels and Russian Soyuz rockets (the only means of sending and retrieving astronauts to and from the station now that the shuttles have been retired) continue to use this system.
    However, manned commercial vessels, set to begin arrival to the ISS in 2017, will maneuver into a docking port within the station itself — something akin to what we’ve seen in movies and television for decades.
    The current system is a daunting and time-consuming process, both arriving and departing. The new system will allow a quick evacuation of crewmembers from the station in the event of an emergency.
    While we won’t be able to see the ISS during the space walk, it routinely flies overhead. For dates and times, go to http://spotthestation.nasa.gov.