Spacecraft to be visible on weekend Shuttle will fly over Westminster


Watch the skies, Westminster. Columbia is orbiting above the city.

Stargazers who rise before dawn could catch a glimpse of the space shuttle Columbia Saturday and Sunday.

At 6:22 a.m. Saturday and 5:22 a.m. Sunday -- don't forget to reset the clocks -- the shuttle should be about 210 miles directly above Westminster.

"It should be a good apparition, not too high in the sky," said Curtis Roelle, a founding member of the Westminster Astronomical Society and experienced backyard satellite tracker. Face south and scan the skies, he said.

"The shuttle should emerge from the Earth's shadow and appear before sunrise," said Mr. Roelle.

With orbital data released from NASA, Mr. Roelle, an engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, has plotted an elaborate table detailing exact times, direction and altitudes.

"The shuttle makes one orbit every 90 minutes and makes other passes here, but the sky is so bright we can't see it," he said. "Sightings cluster around sunset and sunrise."

Pre-dawn shuttle-watching offers optimum visibility. The shuttle would be illuminated by the sun, and earthbound viewers would be under a dark sky. While Westminster residents view the shuttle from the ground, the seven astronauts on board will be experiencing the sunrise.

"Of course, they see the sunrise every 90 minutes," said Mr. Roelle.

To help the astronomically uninitiated locate Columbia, he offers identifying factors.

"It will look like a single bright star moving west to east," he said. "Illumination by the sun gives it a yellowish color. The shuttle won't blink or have red and green lights like a plane."

Leave your telescopes inside. Columbia will be visible to the naked eye, although binoculars might help, Mr. Roelle said.

Shuttle sightings this far north are infrequent; orbits usually are closer to the equator, he said. Columbia is flying an orbital inclination, which determines how far north or south it travels, at 39 degrees latitude.

"This is the best for us, almost overhead," said Mr. Roelle.

For more sophisticated trackers, he offers coordinates to plot Columbia's position on the Star Atlas.

"On Sunday, when the shuttle comes out of the shadow, it will be right next to Regulus, a first magnitude star and the heart of Leo," he said.

That's the constellation Leo.

Columbia is scheduled to end its 14-day research mission Monday when it lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California or the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Future flights probably will not fly this close to our homes, said Mr. Roelle.

"It will be worth waking up for," he said.

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