See the space station, experience an astronaut’s aurora and sense Saturn’s lightning

Astronaut Joe Acaba photographed the aurora australis (southern lights) from the space station from 240 miles up on July 15. The Canadarm 2 is in the foreground.  Acada saw the corresponding southern version of the aurora that many of us in the northern hemisphere saw from the ground. Credit: NASA

That movable feast for the eyes, the International Space Station (ISS), returns to the morning sky this week for the U.S. Times below are for the Duluth, Minn. region. To find when the metal bird flies over your house, log in to Heavens Above or go to Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page and type in your zip code.

On some of the passes, the station will glide very near the the planets Jupiter and Venus in the eastern sky. Bring your camera and a tripod for a photogenic portrait of the trio.

While many of us stood in awe of the northern lights last weekend, astronaut Joe Acaba looked down at them from above and shared the same feelings we felt. In his blog, he writes:

NASA astronaut Joe Acaba, Expedition 31 flight engineer, watches a water bubble float freely between him and the camera on the ISS last month. Credit: NASA

“On Saturday I was working out and in between sets I saw that we were heading south during a night pass.  So I decided my workout could be postponed for a few minutes and I turned out all of the lights in Node 3.  Within a couple of minutes, I could not believe what I was seeing.  It was absolutely incredible.”

“I of course took some obligatory pictures, but then I just sat in the dark, in the peace and quiet of this incredible man made, orbiting laboratory and just looked out the window in awe.  What a truly magnificent planet we live on and solar system we live in.”

Visibility times for the space station / Duluth, Minn. region

* Tomorrow morning July 20 starting at 4:42 a.m. across the southeastern sky.
* Saturday July 21 at 3:51 a.m. very low in the southeast-east.
* Sunday July 22 at 4:33 a.m. High and bright pass in the southeast. The ISS will zip right by Jupiter and Venus about four minutes later.
* Monday July 23 at 3:42 a.m. in the southeast-east
* Tuesday July 24 at 4:23 a.m. Brilliant pass straight across the top of the sky. If you have a telescope, this is a great opportunity to see the actual shape of the ISS as you track it through a low power eyepiece. To me it looks similar to the capital letter H.

These false-color mosaics from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft capture lightning striking within the huge storm that encircled Saturn’s northern hemisphere for much of 2011. The left panel shows the lightning flash as a blue dot. The smaller mosaic image at right was taken 30 minutes later, when the lightning was not flashing. Credit: NASA

Extreme temperatures and the thunderstorms they can bring in the summer season often mean lots of lightning and thunder. Saturn’s got its storms too, including a planet-encircling tempest that erupted in December 2011 and still rumbles on to this day. When strongest last year, NASA’s Cassini space probe captured its first picture of daytime lightning on March 6, 2011. NASA released the photo yesterday.

The lightning appears because it photographed best through Cassini’s blue filter. As for intensity, the flash is similar to the strongest lightning on Earth. Scientists estimate the sizzling stroke emitted 3 billion watts in one second in visible light alone. If you’d like to learn more about Saturn’s cloud top light show, click HERE. Meanwhile, dirigible flights around the ringed planet aren’t recommended in the near future.

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