Science Questions

Can you see space satellites with a telescope?

Sun, 21st Dec 2008

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Alton Vandyver asked:

Can you see space satellites with a telescope?


Dave - You certainly can see satellites with a telescope. Definitely live satellites you can get quite good pictures of them. You can see the International Space Station and all the different bits of it with a large telescope. With your naked eye you can see stars which move across the sky very quickly and don’t have a red flashing light – those are normally planes. Anything moving across the sky very quickly is normally a satellite.

Chris - I saw the guys on the BBC website where they’ve got this tracking software which they’ve written themselves and some amateur telescope gear. They have got some amazing pictures of the International Space Station. It really looks like a computer game, how good the pictures are.

Dave - And also you can sometimes see satellites which aren’t supposed to be there. One of my housemates has got a friend who was taking photos of the sun – he’s an astronomer. Occasionally you see satellites going past the sun and you can see them in some frames of this video. There are lists of all the satellites which are supposed to be there and it was one which wasn’t supposed to be there. There’s definitely more satellites up there than anyone will admit to.

Chris - Also they fool people because some of them come down into lower orbits and then go back up again. You get these interesting Iridium flares where the Iridium network of satellites  which are telecommunication satellites come down low in order to communicate and then they go back up higher. They park them into higher orbits when they’re less in demand. It means they’re using less fuel in the long run because they’re not having to keep accelerating their orbit.


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Alton Vandiver asked the Naked Scientists: Could someone, while out stargazing, happen to catch a glimpse of a satellite in orbit with their telescope? What do you think? Alton Vandiver, Mon, 15th Dec 2008

You don't need a telescope to see them! They are perfectly visible with the naked (scientist) eye as bright lights that cross the sky. There are also websites available that will tell you where and when certain satellites will be, the most obvious of which would be the NASA site. dentstudent, Mon, 15th Dec 2008

You'll need a seriously big telescope to see the International Space Station (ISS) in this detail ...

But by using a normal camera (on a tripod) it is possible to capture the "light trail" of the ISS, using a long exposure ... RD, Mon, 15th Dec 2008

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