Nasa puts out heads up to sky watchers

Nasa is giving amateur Rotorua astronomers the opportunity to spot the International Space Station as it flies across the sky.

Nasa's Spot the Station service sends you an email or text message a few hours before the space station passes over your house.

Rotorua astronomer Alasdair Jackson said he personally was a fan of, a website which picked up not only the space station, but also other bright satellites and Iridium flares - bright flashes that come off the solar panels of a satellite.

Also of note was a website called Galaxy Zoo, which showed the thousands of galaxies in the Northern skies which had been mapped in detail by a digital telescope.

It gave amateur astronomers the chance to analyse different galaxies and categorise them in terms of their shape or colour.

"You can go through and analyse however many galaxies you want to analyse and then send it off," Mr Jackson said.

The information is then collated by astronomers into a central database, he said.

After the sun and moon, Nasa says the space station is the third brightest object in the sky and is easy to see if you know where and when to look for it.

At over 300km above the ground, the space station looks like a fast-moving plane and is best viewed on clear nights.

Nasa only notifies of good sighting opportunities - sightings that are high enough in the sky (40 degrees or more) and last long enough to give the best view of the orbiting laboratory; anywhere from once or twice a week to once or twice a month, depending on the space station's orbit.

The station is a habitable artificial satellite in low Earth orbit - its ownership and use was established by intergovernmental treaties and agreements. It cost US$150 billion ($184 billion) to build and was launched in November 1998. The space station programme is a joint project between five participating space agencies - Nasa, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

In other astronomical news, a partial solar eclipse will blot out 91 per cent of the sun in some parts of the country on Wednesday.

Solar Saros 133, a series of eclipses which last occurred almost two decades ago, is scheduled to begin at 9.18am over Auckland, reaching maximum coverage at 10.28am.

At maximum coverage, the sun would appear as a slim crescent - but is not expected to have a significant effect on the amount of daylight.

Up to 91 per cent of the sun would be blocked out in Northland, but less than 60 per cent would be obscured in the far South Island. The best vantage point was along the "path of totality" - a 180km path created by the shadow of the moon moving east from northern Australia, passing about midway between New Zealand and New Caledonia and finishing just before reaching the coast of Chile.

Earlier this year, the Transit of Venus on June 6 sparked intense excitement in astronomy circles when the planet glided across the face of the sun and changed from being an evening star in the west to a morning star in the east. It last occurred in 2004 and will not happen again until 2117. More information on Nasa's Spot the Station service can be found on their website:

- Rotorua Daily Post

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