While waiting at a cold Whistler bus stop, enjoying the crystal clear night sky that has plagued us all winter, I noticed two phenomena that were slightly out of the ordinary: an extremely bright dot in the southwest and a large satellite skimming the sky a little further to the south.
I knew the first sighting had to be a planet, but which one? And while satellites are a dime a dozen these days, this particular satellite was moving a little faster and shone a little brighter than your typical satellite. I wondered if maybe I had just caught a glimpse of Space Shuttle Atlantis or even the International Space Station.
I knew Id find the answers to both of these questions online.
My first stop was Astronomy.com, the homepage of Astronomy Magazine and a comprehensive guide and digest for all kinds of star gazers. The first thing you want to do at this site is to get yourself a membership its free and they dont try to sell you anything or ask a lot of product-related questions.
I went directly to the Sky Online, which is a kind of road map to the stars. Using a navigation system that allows me to set the time, time zone, date and direction I saw the bright dot, I determined that the planet I thought I saw was probably just Sirius, or the "Dog Star", of the Canis Major constellation, which was looking exceptionally luminous that night.
That established, I browsed for a while, reading a few astronomy articles and looking at pictures taken by Hubble and land-based telescopes. Scientists have all but proven that the last great extinction was caused by an asteroid crashing into the earth 250 million years ago, the Russians are sending up a crew to film the destruction of the MIR space station as it crashes to earth to raise money for future space endeavours, and a group of elementary school students discovered a cluster of mysterious boulders on the surface of mars. Since most boulders on earth are the byproducts of glaciers or volcanism this discovery could provide more evidence to support the theory that there is a substantial amount of water on Mars.
While my planet turned out to be a star, the bright satellite I saw was in fact the International Space Station, visible from Whistler two or three days a week. NASA confirmed this for me at SkyWatch, an online education centre that tracks the station for the public. Using the closest urban centre as a reference, in my case Vancouver, NASA can tell you when and where to look for the space station.