If all goes well with tonight's planned launch of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft toward its rendezvous with the International Space Station, Marylanders could get a nice look at the two spaceships early Saturday morning as they fly over the Eastern U.S.
The Soyuz, with a Russian, an American and an Italian on board, is scheduled for liftoff at 8:46 p.m. tonight (Thursday) from Russians' Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This is the Expedition 11 crew, which has trained to greet the shuttle Discovery when it arrives in May or June. One of their jobs will be to do a visual and photographic inspection, and scan the shuttle for any damage that might have occurred during launch.
If Soyuz is launched on time, the crew plans to dock with the ISS at 10:19 p.m. EDT Saturday night. Between launch and docking, the Soyuz will be flying in the space station's orbit, racing to catch up.
With luck, observers on the ground in Maryland should be able to see the two craft flying overhead just before dawn Saturday, one trailing behind the other.
I've watched once before as the Space Shuttle approached the station, and it's very cool to see them go by, one after the other. That was an evening pass. This one, unfortunately, will be before dawn. I don't usually ask people to get up early to see this sort of event, because if they don't see it, they'll be pretty grumpy for the rest of the day. I'm not much of a morning person myself. But trust me; this will be well worth getting up early to see. And the weather forecast , except for the freeze watch, looks very good. Clear skies all weekend.
Of course, everything depends on tonight's Soyuz launch. I'm not entirely sure how close the two craft will be to each other by Saturday morning. And NASA folks couldn't tell me right away either. They did say the space station will be the one in front. Here is when to look for the International Space Station. Soyuz will follow at some distance behind it.
First, make sure you'll have a clear view of the northern horizon. This will be a decidedly northerly pass from our vantage point, and not very high above the horizon. For observers close to Baltimore, the ISS will first appear at 5:13 a.m. (sorry) about 27 degrees above the west-northwest horizon. (Straight overhead is 90 degrees.)
It will look like a fairly bright star, moving briskly toward the northeast. At 5:14 a.m. it will be 36 degrees above the northwest horizon - about a third of the way up the sky. That's the highest point of this flyby. And it will disappear at 5:16 a.m. just above the northeastern horizon.
Soyuz, of course, will follow along soon after. It might be close enough to see before the space station disappears. It's smaller, and so it reflects less sunlight and therefore should appear slightly dimmer than the station. I've also noticed that the space station, thanks to its copper-colored solar panels, can reflect a slightly yellowish color.
For more precise predictions for your location, go to Heavens Above, follow the directions and enter your observing location. When the predictions come up, click on the "16 Apr" prediction link and it will give you a star map, showing the precise path of the two spacecraft across the pre-dawn sky. The course takes them right across the Big Dipper from our perspective in Baltimore.
There's also a ground-track map available, showing the path of the space station over the Eastern U.S. It will be flying northeastward, over the Texas Gulf Coast toward the southern shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario, and then on toward northern New England. If you're going to be in any of those locations, the spacecraft will appear to fly directly overhead. For us, they will cross our northern skies.
So, set those alarms and good luck. Drop a comment here afterwards and let us know how you fared. I won't be able to post them until Sunday, but I'll look forward to hearing how it went.