How to spot satellites

Image from NASA

So you’re looking up at the stars one night and you see something up there moving… suddenly it goes out.  Was that a satellite?  Was it an airplane?

There are a lot of websites out there for watching satellites but the best, most comprehensive and one of the oldest is  I have been using it for almost as long as the internet itself has been around.

It’s great to know that at a certain time tonight you can step outside, look in a certain part of the sky, and maybe, just maybe, see a satellite suddenly appear and whiz by.

You will need your latitude and longitude; there are lots of ways to get that.  Then go to the heavens-above site and just play around with it.

The first and easiest is the ISS, followed by the Iridium satellites.  With practice you can even see the Iridiums in the daytime!  The best way is to practice on these two until you get pretty good at it – then there are hundreds more.  And, the site has lots and lots of other good information about spacecraft.  The more time you spend there, the more things you’ll want to try.

Keep these things in mind though:

1) Your fist help at arm’s length covers about 10 degrees.  Use that to measure altitude (Alt.) above the horizon.

2)  The direction (North, northeast, etc.) is given as a bearing and is called “Az.”.  East is 90, south is 180, west is 270, etc.

3) “Magnitude” is how bright the satellite will be.  The smaller the number the brighter it is.  Anything smaller (brighter) than zero will be very bright, like an airplane.

4) Airplanes often have their flashers on; satellites do not.

5) The light from a satellite is reflected from the Sun.  That’s why it will suddenly appear in the middle of the sky and will suddenly go out.  The website tell you exactly when these will happen.

6) The whole thing is an estimation.  It’s a sort of a sport.  Times may vary, usually a little later as the orbits decay unexpectedly, and magnitude can change too.

Have fun! and let us know how you did.  or didn’t.

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Please register below for one (or more) of our five FREE Oklahoma Green Schools Training sessions. Join us for one of these events to learn how the Oklahoma Green Schools Program works, review the Project Learning Tree (PLT) GreenSchools Investigations in the five topics: ENERGY, WATER, WASTE & RECYCLING, ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY, and SCHOOL SITE (includes STEM-related activities), participate in small group discussions and peruse the toolkit. All sessions will be held from 9:00-11:00 am (except Weatherford which will be from 4:00-6:00 pm). Refreshments for each session are sponsored by Greenstar Recycling.

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July 19—4:00 to 6:00 pm—Weatherford (SWOSU )
Host: Marie Pool, Clinton High School
Location: Southwestern Oklahoma State University (SWOSU), 100 Campus Drive, Weatherford, OK 73096

July 24—9:00 to 11:00am—Metro Career Academy— Oklahoma City (+optional tour)
Host: Barbara Loudermilk, Principal
Location: Metro Career Academy, 201 N.E. 48th, Oklahoma City, OK 73105
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July 31—Ada: East Central University (ECU)
Host: Dr. Douglas Weirick, Chair—ECU Department of Environmental Health Science
Location: ECU Physical and Environmental Sciences (PES) Building, Room 262

Aug 2—Bartlesville: OSU Extension Office (Dewey – suburb)
Host: Gale Mills, OSU Extension Family and Consumer Sciences Educator
Location: Washington County Extension Office, 205 E 12th Street, PO Box 10, Dewey OK 74029

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Host: Andrea Rains, Skyline Principal
Location: 1402 E. Sunrise Ave., Stillwater, OK 74075

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Physics workshop for all levels – elementary and up

Professional Development Opportunities for Teachers:

  • 2012 AAPT/PTRA ToPPS II: Designed for In-Service Oklahoma Teachers of Physics and Physical Science, this professional development opportunity is a 5-day summer institute (with 2 follow-up sessions during the 2012 – 2013 academic year).  This is a very “hands-on,” “minds-on” professional development opportunity.  Those seeking to enhance their students’ learning in physics and physical science are encouraged to apply!
  • Details:

o   Summer institute runs July 9 – 13that the Alva campus of Northwestern Oklahoma State University

o   $600 stipend ($400 at end of 5-day summer institute; $100 for each follow-up session)

o   Free instructional/curriculum materials endorsed by AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers)

o   High-tech and Low-tech equipment used

o   This year’s topics: Energy, Momentum and Impulse

o   Total of 40 hours of professional development (30 in July, 5 at each follow-up session)

o   Free on-site housing (if staying in dorms)

o   Website:

o   Participants may enroll in 3 hours of graduate EDUC, PHYS or PHSC credit to apply toward an advanced degree

o   A $100 refundable check will be required of applicants (checks will be returned at the close of the summer institute)

While this PD opportunity is designed for HS physics teachers, MS and ES teachers may also apply.  We are fully aware that science teachers wear many hats, and we want to encourage teachers of all grade levels to consider this opportunity.


Please let list members know that they can contact me directly if they have any questions.


Thank You!



Steven J. Maier, PhD

Chair, Department of Natural Science

Associate Professor of Physics

Northwestern Oklahoma State University

Science Building 107-B

709 Oklahoma Blvd.

Alva, OK  73717

580.327.8562 (o)

580.327.8556 (f)