Locating an Overhead Satellite

Contrary to what some people think, it is possible to view a satellite in orbit even if it’s hundreds of miles away. Many people find satellites fascinating and often go out of their way to find them in the night sky. Certain factors make satellites more visible to the naked eye, however. These include size, shape, altitude and material. Larger satellites are obviously easier to find, while others are made visible because of the reflective material used to build them. Japan’s EGP satellite, for example, is covered with reflective mirrors.

Tracking a satellite
An important thing to remember when trying to locate a satellite is that you’ll need to know your own coordinates – your latitude and longitude, which will determine your current location. This information will allow you to find a satellite that will be passing overhead at a particular moment. Coordinates are provided by the USGS Mapping Information Website. It’s also available at Topozone.

To predict a satellite, software may be used to track those in orbit. These applications are excellent for predicting orbits because they also provide the exact time a satellite will be passing by.

Finding a visible satellite
The best time to search for a satellite is when the sky is dark or when the sun has just set. During this time, the satellite may just be reflecting the sun off its exterior, making it easy to see. Sometimes during a full moon, satellites may be difficult to view because they don’t have sufficient contrast with the night sky.

Using binoculars and an accurate watch is also a good idea when spotting satellites. Even on cloudless nights, the satellites that will likely remain visible to the naked eye may just be the brightest. A good pair of binoculars that has excellent light processing capabilities is a good choice for this purpose. Keeping accurate time is also important, since being off by several seconds will cause you to miss a passing satellite.

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