Observation Log 2/28/06: I can’t believe it, I just watched a SuitSat flyover!

Path of SuitSat

I wrote earlier today about my meticulously geeky plans to try and bag SuitSat. I just got back indoors from the attempt, and I don’t believe it, but I did it!

The short story is that the talking laptop was the real key. That, and having practiced the flyover several times using the talking AppleScript and Starry Night with all the labels and lines turned off. Oh, and a bit of damn good luck at just the right time. I used my laptop, my Oberwerk 11×70 binoculars on a cheap tripod, and my Canon 10×30 Image Stabilizing binoculars for quick spotting.

Once I got outside, I couldn’t see my first and last guide stars, and Cepheus was lost in the city-glow to the north. I had only left 15 minutes to set up, get my eyes dark adapted, and practice acquiring the target stars. It wasn’t enough. I picked a spot with the widest view I could find, which barely included Alpheratz and Pherkad. Algenib at the extreme left, and AIkaid, to my extreme right, were both behind the trees. I got the laptop set up and got down to finding the target stars I could see. I had intended to use the Great Square to find Alpheratz, but the other three stars were behind the trees. Then the laptop told me SuitSat was coming above the horizon, and I had 85 seconds before it passed Algenib. I used the time to try and find Iota Cephei and Alfirk. I was close, but not positive. The laptop said 10 seconds to Algenib. I swung the Oberwerks over to my best candidate for Algenib and waited to hear the marks for entering and exiting the FOV. Nothing. Then the laptop said I had 25 seconds to frame Alpheratz. I realized then that’s what I had been looking at all along. I stayed on that star, cheated the FOV down and to the right for a better view, and waited. A moment after the laptop said I should see SuitSat, there it was. It was much dimmer than I expected, perhaps a bit brighter than 6th magnitude at this point, but I immediately noticed that it came in and out of view every five seconds, which matches the suit’s spin rate quoted on A. J. Farmer’s blog, which also reported the photographic SuitSat observation from Singapore. SuitSat was also traveling faster than I’d thought, and I kept lifting the legs on the cheap tripod as I tried to keep up. I held SuitSat in my Field Of View for about 15 seconds, and lost it somewhere near Iota Andromedae. The laptop said I had 27 seconds to frame Iota Cephei at the top of my FOV. I had to guess again. Thankfully, I had to foresight to add a few informational spoken messages, and at 6:44:00, the laptop said, “SuitSat is directly below Cassiopeia at 30 degrees altitude.” That was an easy one, and within 15 seconds I’d reacquired SuitSat, and I held it until it ducked behind the trees, just past Pherkad.

Path of SuitSat The flyover track graphic here and the groundtrack graphic below are by Chris Peat, Heavens-Above GmbH, and his excellent site Heavens-Above.

Here’s the rest of the story, including what I consider to be the clincher that I was really watching SuitSat.

As I said, I’d just reacquired the suit as it passed in front of Cepheus. At this point, it was at its closest, just over 600km. As soon as it passed Alfirk, the laptop said, “Try to follow SuitSat toward Pherkad. You have 35 seconds.” I had it well in my sights now, and it was getting brighter as it traveled northeastward, presumably because it was increasingly illuminated, being farther downrange from me with respect to the Sun.

Then came a few more informational announcements from the laptop that had worked like a charm in my practice sessions, and were bang on for the real thing: Path of SuitSat At 6:44:42: “Now beneath Kappa Cephei.” Sure enough. It was the only other bright star in the FOV.

At 6:44:46: “Now above 59 Draconis.” There it went. Again, no question.

At 6:44:53: “Now right above 35 Draconis.” Again, spot on. I made a mental note that 35 Draconis had a dimmer neighbor, to look up in Starry Night later on for verification. Sure enough, HIP87157 was right where it was supposed to be.

And finally, I got a 10-second warning for Pherkad. Again, SuitSat was right on the money when the laptop said, “On Pherkad.” I immediately lost it behind the trees.

I have no previous experience with visual estimations of magnitude, but I would say, based on comparisons to other stars I saw through the Oberwerks tonight, that SuitSat had almost reached magnitude 3.5 as it passed through Cepheus and maintained that brightness for about 25 seconds before beginning to dim as it approached Pherkad, even given that contrast was better once SuitSat got out of the city-glow.

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