Surprise Spaceship Flare; Venus And Crescent Moon Delight Tonight

If you look closely, what appears as single track is actually a pair: the much brighter space station is on top. Just below and parallel to it is the track of the HTV-4. Photo taken during the 11:14 p.m. pass near Duluth, Minn. Details: 24mm f/2.8, ISO 1600, ~2 minute exposure. Credit: Bob King

The International Space Station successfully captured the Japanese cargo ship HTV-4 and docking is still underway as of early this morning. Some of you may have seen the two neck in neck crossing the northern sky last night. We got two passes here in Duluth, Minn. at 9:36 p.m. and 11:14 p.m. HTV-4 tailed the station by only 5 degrees or equal to the distance between the stars at the end of the Big Dipper bowl during the firt pass. On the second, I was ready with a camera to record the duo crossing the Big Dipper. By that time only 2 degrees separated them – the closest I’ve personally ever seen the ISS followed by another craft.

While the space station was nearly as bright as Jupiter, the dog-on-a-leash cargo vessel brightened to 2nd magnitude. Both were easy to see with the naked eye especially when they reached maximum altitude in the northern sky.

Enlargement of the center part of the first photo clearly shows the trails of both spacecraft and the brief flare of sunlight off HTV-4. Credit: Bob King

It was amazing enough to see this close pair of orbiting satellites, but something wonderful and unexpected happened as they cruised by. Halfway through the pass, the cargo ship suddenly brightened to nearly match the ISS then returning to normal a few seconds later. Sunlight glinting off a flat surface on the ship created a momentary flare much like a window here on Earth does when you’re in the right spot to catch the bright reflection.

Venus and the moon in the west about 20 minutes after sunset this evening. Created with Stellarium

You can catch another pair of bright sky objects tonight. Head out just after sunset to watch the returning crescent moon dangle just below the bright planet Venus. They’re paired up in the west anywhere from 10 minutes to 45 minutes after sunset. A beautiful sight!


3 Responses

  1. Sean

    while i missed the scene u created with Stellarium in that last image on the post, overall I have had a pretty good week with planet-watching. while i missed the early crescent ,moon Thursday evening, and the close passes of the ISS and HTV pre-docking, as well as that close pass of the moon by Venus due to clouds, on Monday AM i had managed to spot Mercury for the 1st time this apparition, caught the final visible crescent moon (unless you’re that Thierry guy in France that is), and tracked Jupiter till almost 5 minutes past sunrise. then this AM, caught sight of Mercury again, Mars, and Jupiter, the last of which i tracked till about 10 minutes past sunrise. i thought i would take advantage of the moon and try to find Venus in the daytime today, but due to some cloudiness only caught sight of it about 15 minutes prior to sunset. was readily visible at that time with clear skies if u were looking in exactly the right spot, so i will try to find it more into daytime in the days ahead. And looking 4ward to Perseids hopefully the next couple of nights. I suppose this will b our last weekend with Mercury 4 a while as i suspect it’ll b lost in solar glare by next weekend. thx 4 letting me share!

    1. astrobob

      You got a line on the sky alright. Mercury is indeed leaving the scene but soon we’ll be getting ISON updates.

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