Space shuttle to flash by here twice as momentary point of light


May 01, 1991|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

Get out of bed early enough this weekend, find a spot with a wide view of the sky, and you may get a rare glimpse of a U.S. space shuttle streaking across the sky.

Usually the shuttle flights circle Earth no farther north than Cape Canaveral, too far south to be spotted from Baltimore.

But this time, thanks to its Star Wars mission, the shuttle Discovery was launched into an orbit that takes it as far north as Moscow and as far south as the southern tip of South America.

That means it should be visible here, just before dawn on Sunday and Monday.

"It should be as bright as one of the brightest stars in the sky," says Jim O'Leary, a spokesman for the Maryland Science Center. "Given clear skies, this should be visible to the naked eye. It would be kind of neat to see it up there, almost 170 miles in altitude."

NASA spokesman Ed Campion says the shuttle's orbit takes it to 57 degrees north latitude and 57 degrees south latitude to get it as close as possible to the Earth's poles.

"The mission is to make observations of the auroras," he says.

The auroras, or so-called Northern and Southern Lights, occur when charged particles thrown off by the sun are captured by Earth's magnetic field and drawn toward Earth near the poles. The particles create brilliant displays of colored light as they encounter gas molecules at the outer edges of the atmosphere.

The observations by shuttle astronauts are part of the Department of Defense's Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars research. They're intended to determine "how the equipment sees things in space," Campion says.

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