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    We have liftoff. Now look up

    We finally have liftoff. Congratulations, NASA, sixth time's the charm.

    Now we wait for the shuttle to catch up and dock with the International Space Station, which should happen around midday Friday. Here'a site that lets you follow the choreographed dance between the two vehicles in more-or-less real time:

    Once the two spacecraft are docked together for their 16-day rendezvous, they should make a spectacular sight from Earth.

    For one thing, as of March the ISS now has its complete array of solar panels, so it's more reflective than before. The shuttle hanging off it should make it even brighter. And the coming week will feature at least three direct passes over either Montreal or New York City in prime viewing periods (roughly 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.)

    The sky has had time to get dark, but the ISS-shuttle combo is high enough (about 200 miles up) to still be fully sunlit. The visual result is a magnitude of more than -3, which is almost as bright as Venus ever gets. But neither Venus nor the moon will be in the sky those nights, making the ISS the brightest thing in the heavens.

    For a very brief period! Typically, it takes maybe four minutes to zip from horizon to horizon. It's moving more than 17,000 mph. And on some passes, it enters Earth's shadow before reaching the eastern horizon, so the viewing opportunity can be over in a minute or two.

    For stargazers in the New York area, assuming clear skies, there's a really good pass on Thursday, July 23. Look northwest at 9:43 p.m. The ISS should just be clearing the horizon. Five minutes later, it will be almost directly overhead -- and a minute later, it will instantly vanish as it enters Earth's shadow.

    Readers living elsewhere can go to and punch in their town or city (or longitude and latitude if they know them). Print out a weekly list of ISS passes, and focus on those with a predicted brightness of -2 or (ideally) -3. Those will be the closest to your location and also tend to be visible the longest.

    I'll admit I'm particularly interested in this shuttle-ISS mission because it marks the first time two Canadian astronauts have been in space at the same time. But if you live in any of the 16 countries that are partners in the ISS, you should be paying some attention. This project has cost us all, collectively, $100 billion.

    Construction of the ISS is only being completed this year, but U.S. funding is due to stop in six years. If that happens, the whole thing will be de-orbited to burn up over the Pacific. That would be kind of a colossal waste.

    Here's the view the shuttle astronauts will see Friday as they approach the ISS for docking:

    Image icon ISS.jpg79.81 KB


    New Yorkers can also look northwest at 8:56 p.m. on Saturday, July 25. Another brilliant overhead pass.

    I can't believe we're talking about deorbiting this thing. If we're going to abandon it, we should find a way to "up-orbit" it. I.e., we should put it into a higher, more stable orbit so that when we need those raw materials, we can get them from there, where it'd be cheaper. Stupid bureaucrats.

    Also, I'm sure there's a hockey reference in there somewhere, but I can't find it. What am I missing?

    Word. The space program has become a sad joke. I have a related news-from-the-future post, but I'm saving it for the moon landing anniversary.

    As of 25 minutes ago, Endeavor has successfully docked with the station.

    Since nobody else seems to have noticed, I've got to call myself on this (I know I could just edit it out, but that would be wrong). I'm so used to cutting out the U on blogs or comments at "American" sites -- color for colour, valor for valour -- that I automatically did the same for Endeavour.

    What I failed to realize is that the shuttle's name is properly spelled the Canadian-British way, not the American way. The vehicle is not named for the common noun for a goal-oriented activity, but for the ship British captain James Cook sailed around the world. My apologies.

    The weather has not been co-operating with my shuttle-viewing efforts. I'll give it another shot tomorrow.

    Just caught tonight's pass, including a fadeout as the station passed into Earth's shadow. Cool.

    Earlier tonight, I caught my third magnitude -3.3 pass in a week. The next good viewing opportunities (from Montreal) are about a month away, so I'll blog out on this topic. All I'll say is that, if you get a chance to see a pass of -3 or greater from your locality, take it. The sunlight reflecting off the solar array is golden. Seen against a clear starry sky, it is breathtakingly beautiful. We humans did that.

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