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Sky watch: Catch a glimpse of drifting satellites

One of my favorite summertime activities is watching satellites pass across the early evening sky.

So how does one know when and where to look? With the Internet, it's really quite easy. All you've got to do is visit heavens-above.com.

Once there, take a few minutes to register. It's free, and it'll make your future visits more productive and enjoyable. Not only will you learn which satellites pass over your neighborhood, but you'll also find there times of sunset, sunrise and twilight, phases of the moon and much more.

To use these features, you must first tell the program where you're located - either by selecting your town or by entering your latitude and longitude manually.

Once you do this, you can easily learn the details of upcoming satellite passes. My favorite feature comes from clicking the time of a satellite's maximum altitude: a full sky map that shows a satellite's path across the familiar constellations.

Now let's say, for example, that you discover that the International Space Station or the Hubble Space Telescope will pass tonight and you'd like to see it.

First, make sure your watch is set to the correct time. Next, go outdoors and look along the satellite's projected path for a "star" that appears to be drifting slowly in the correct direction. Don't be fooled by one with blinking red and green lights; this is not a satellite! And always begin your satellite-watching session a few minutes early.

In the evening sky, a satellite will often appear faint and brighten as the sun's light illuminates it more fully. Sometimes, it will catch a brief glint of sunlight and brighten rapidly. Don't be surprised if the satellite fades away while still in the sky; it's just entered the shadow of the Earth.

Photographing an Earth-orbiting satellite is easy, too. With your camera on a tripod, aim it toward a constellation along the satellite's path. Focus on infinity, set your aperture wide open, ISO to 400 or 800, and exposure for "manual." When the satellite approaches your target, trip the shutter until the satellite has passed completely. It will record as a streak crossing the stationary stars.

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