Thanks to an alert from... hmmm... let's call her... Mighty Ow, I was able to catch the International Space Station zipping by overhead last night, followed at a respectable distance by the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The hazy layer of clouds might have obscured lesser satelites (and did, in fact, obscure the expected Iridium flare from my seeking eyes after several additional minutes of cloud arrival), but the ISS and HST managed to shine through the haze.
I've watched satelites pass by before. One fine summer evening, I sat out on our deck with DORADO and picked out dozens passing by before the cricks in our necks and the strange feeling of being watched sent us back indoors. On a clear night, it is only necessary to remove unneccessary light sources and gaze quietly upward for a while to find the tiny dots of light whizzing by. (if partaking of certain alkaloidal chemicals, I understand that it is not even necessary to gaze upward). But the ISS/HST combo put these puny pricks of light to shame.
For these lights were not only wonderfully bright. Their paths through the sky were also unusual, for these two pinpricks of light following the same trajectory through the night skies. Separated by only an armslength handsbreadth of starfield (say that three times fast), they soared along. As I understand the situation, the shuttle had separated from the ISS only a few hours earlier, and was still building up the separation.
Seeing a satelite whiz by always gives me a little burst of pride in Mankind. To think that we (or rather, We) have sent these small packages to their ridiculous heights, where they travel at their ridiculous speeds, solely to help people in SanFrancisco order prank Tandoori deliveries for their friends in London... well that's pretty damn cool.
But to see two spots of light whizzing by, slowly separating like friends in the parking lot after the show, and to know that there are actual people on each of them working hard to figure out what to do with this whole "space" thing and , more immediately, how to deal effectively with the ridiculous heights and speeds without getting smashed against our little planet... well that's pretty much blows my freaking mind!
PS: If you're interested in seeing the space station, or Iridium flares, or other interesting manmade satelites, check out heavens-above. They can show you just what's coming and when, and they'll give you nifty little sky maps to help you find it.