If you live in mid-northern latitudes, which includes much of the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia, this has been a great month for spying the International Space Station (ISS) at dusk. If you live in the southern hemisphere, the station has been zipping by at dawn. Those passes continue this week with a new wrinkle. The cargo craft, HTV-6 named Kounotori, “white stork” in Japanese, launched yesterday morning from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan and will dock at the ISS early Tuesday morning.
Now through Monday night (Dec. 12), HTV-6 will gradually walk the rungs of its orbital ladder up to the station, giving skywatchers a chance to see the two cross the sky together within a few minutes of each other. They’ll be on similar paths, so if you spot the station crossing the northern sky, you’ll also see HTV-6 do the same. Between tonight and Tuesday night, they’ll draw closer and closer together.
Because the cargo ship is much smaller than the ISS, it will appear fainter but still fairly bright, more like a first magnitude star such as Deneb or Altair in the Summer Triangle. For instance, from Duluth, Minn. tonight, the space station will make a fine, bright pass across the northern sky from about 5:05 to 5:10 p.m. The White Stork follows nearly the same track from 5:49 to 5:51 p.m. Its appearance is brief because the ship gets eclipsed by Earth’s shadow just after 5:51 p.m.
While the difference in pass times amounts to about 40 minutes, that’s sure to shrink by the hour. Visit Heavens Above, select your city and click on the ISS link to find out when the space station will next cruise by you. From the list of pass times, click the date of your choice, and it will open a map showing the station’s path across the sky.
Next, open up a new tab, return to Heavens Above and under the Satellites heading, select Satellite Database. Type HTV-6 in the Name window and then click Visible Passes. Voila! Now you’ve got a list of times the stork will fly by. You can flip back and forth between tabs to compare paths and times. Easy peasy.
HTV-6 carries more than five tons of cargo, including food, water and experiments for the ISS. It replaces the failed Russian cargo ship that attempted to deliver supplies to the station about a week ago, so the astronauts must be excited about the ship’s arrival. Once its contents are emptied, HTV-6 will de-orbited early next year and burn up harmlessly over the ocean.
In other news, if you’ve wondered where the planet Saturn has gone to, look no farther than the sun. Today the ringed beauty is in conjunction with the sun and completely invisible. Lost in the solar glare, the only way to “see” it is via the orbiting Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), which uses a coronagraph to completely block the sun from view and reveal the planet shining there all along.
During solar conjunction, a planet passes from the evening into the morning sky. Glare will make it impossible to spot for a time, but by the 27th, a skinny lunar crescent will pass near the planet at dawn and help point us to and welcome back the king of the rings.