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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Look out, look up

25 January 2018

I recall that as a child, I spent many hours with my eyes cast skywards, marveling at the size and scope of the heavens above.

On the very few occasions (remember this was the 1960s) when I actually saw a satellite streak overhead, I'd be chuffed to bits and bore my friends and family for days, recounting the wonder of it all.

Meteors were another seldom-seen but much remembered element of the night skies and it seemed that I never tired of just lying on my back, staring upwards.

These days, the skies above us are very different and a lot more congested so it takes but a few minutes of night-gazing to see the things that were so rare back when I was a kid.

It's still worth having a gander though.

In fact, it's even more worth taking a look since RocketLab launched its space-disco-ball into low-earth orbit.

Yep, in what has to be admitted is a pretty cool publicity stunt, RocketLab has deployed a fairly sizable multi-faceted silvery ball into orbit and have created tracking site so you can find out when to look for it soaring overhead.

Okay, calling it the "Humanity Star" is a bit pretentious but the concept is great.

Ordinary satellites tend to appear as a point source of light that traverse the night sky in a matter of 15-25 seconds (by my observation). It's exciting to watch them race across the field of stars that are their backdrop but I'm thinking that the Humanity Star (no, I can't call it that... I'll use an abbreviation: HS) will be a far more impressive sight. If it's tumbling, which surely it must be since it's a totally "dumb" object with no stabilization systems onboard, it should "twinkle" quite perceptibly.

Although perhaps no match for the ISS as a viewing spectacle, the HS will become yet another object to keep an eye out for.

Oh, and if you've not seen the ISS then you really should take a look at it -- it is hyper-impressive.

Even with a very modest amount of magnification, you can make out the solar arrays and various components that make up the station as it catches the suns rays not long after sunset or before sun-rise. It's gobsmacking to think that this thing is hurling through space with people onboard, just above our heads.

Another very impressive experience is to watch an Iridium flare.

Again, if you've never seen one you really don't know what you're missing.

The Iridium satellites are a bunch of birds in low-earth orbit and since they are solar-powered, they have huge photovoltaic arrays which, from time to time, reflect intense levels of sunlight back to the earth. If you happen to be standing in exactly the right place and looking in the correct area of the sky at precisely the right time, you're in for a treat.

I've only ever seen one Iridium flare and it was absolutely brilliant -- in every meaning of the word. It was daytime and the intensity of the flash actually surprised me. It was as if something had flashed into existence before my very eyes and then, just as quickly, disappeared.

Fascinating and exciting.

So I highly recommend that folk take a few minutes out of their days or nights to spend a little time star-gazing at the vista which hangs over our heads.

If nothing else, it's a great way to remind ourselves just how insignificant we are.

Oh, and if you're looking for more info on what's passing overhead at any given time, the Heavens-above website is a trove of tracking information.

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