A Tale of Two Observations (long)

Craig Cholar (3432P@VM1.CC.NPS.NAVY.MIL)
Mon, 22 Dec 97 12:18:16 PST

Despite being totally cutoff from the internet since Friday afternoon
due to systems work at our data center, I managed to use Ron Lee's
predictive elset that he posted Dec 12th to observe two passes of the
new Iridiums this weekend.  Thanks Ron!  I wouldn't have seen any of
them without it.

Since I knew I wouldn't have internet access, I needed to make sure that
the Iridiums had actually launched.  I forced myself to get up early Saturday
morning, and braved the cold outside to see if I could see the launch from my
backyard.  I glimpsed about 10 seconds of it before it went behind some clouds.
Ok, now that I knew they were on their way, I quickly dashed inside and
collapsed back in bed, with dreams of observing plans dancing in my head.

Weather conditions for the first pass Saturday night were less than
ideal (about 90% cloud cover).  The twilight conditions were such that
only a few of the brightest stars were visible in the cloud gaps, but
one of them was Alderamin, and Rob Matson's Skymap showed the cluster
would graze very close to it.  I scanned the area around Alderamin
with my 7x50's, and was treated to all five within the same field of
view, each between mag 3 and mag 4.  The pass only lasted about 30
seconds before clouds covered them up.  I considered myself very lucky
to have a gap in the right place and the right time.  Those were the
only satellites I saw that night.  I excitedly told my wife what I had
just seen; She just looked up, smiled, and said "That's nice", and resumed
reading her Terry Pratchett novel unavailable in the U.S. that she had
special ordered from the U.K.  Oh well, I guess we each have our own,
unshared obsessions. <g>

For some reason, a Sunday evening pass of the Iridiums in darker, cloud-free
skies ended up a complete washout.  I don't understand how I missed them, but
I did.  I made up for the disappointment by watching a nice high elevation
pass of Sputnik 40 in my newtonian and 7x50's.  It was probably between
mag 8 and mag 9.

The next pass of the new Iridiums was early Monday morning, low in the west
under crytal clear winter skies.  Since I still didn't have any OIG elsets
I continued to rely on Ron's. Using 7x50's, I first saw the Delta rocket less
than a minute late, and then the Iridiums showed up about 1m50s later than
predicted, only a degree or two below track.  Not bad at all for an elset
published a week before the launch.  By this time they had spread out far
enough where I couldn't keep them in the same binocular field of view,
but they were still a very nice sight.  This cluster may produce successive
negative mag. flares Tuesday evening for San Francisco bay area locations.
I sure hope the weather stays clear; the last time a new Iridium cluster was
supposed to flare like that the skies changed from cloud free to totally
overcast about an hour before the event.  I drove about a half hour, in
rush hour traffic, looking for a gap in the clouds with no luck.  The
2-day forecast says mostly clear Tuesday (so far, so good) with increasing
high clouds late in the day (oh no, NOT AGAIN!).

Slowly recovering from net-and-sleep-deprivation,
Craig Cholar