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Rockets and satellites: Some cool, others not so much

Greetings, stargazers.

Besides stars, planets, galaxies, and nebulae, there are lots of other interesting things to see in the Durango sky. I am particularly thinking of some of the human-made objects. I find that some are really cool, while others are really annoying.

Last month, I was lucky enough to see a SpaceX launch as it boosted into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The interesting part of this experience was that I saw the rocket plume from Fort Lewis College in Durango.

The launch complex is on the Pacific coast just west of Los Angeles. According to Google maps, it is 733 miles as the crow flies from Durango. Normally, that would be well beyond the horizon, but rockets fly high enough to be seen from a long way away. During daylight hours, or the middle of the night, there would be no hope of seeing it from Durango. However, when a launch happens just after sunset on the West Coast, the plume will be in sunlight as the rocket lifts into orbit. Because Durango is an hour later, it is completely dark here and the plume will be a bright, sunlit white.

Useful links

Spaceflight schedule


Space Station Viewing


Astronomy picture of the day


An Astronomer’s forecast for Durango


Old Fort Lewis Observatory



This is the second Vandenberg launch I have seen from campus. Because the launch schedule is so unpredictable, it requires a bit of luck to see one from here. For this launch, I was looking for it ahead of time and had my camera ready. The plume was visible for about a minute.

The International Space Station regularly passes overhead. Just after dusk or right before dawn, the Space Station will be in sunlight while we are mostly in darkness. When visible, it can sometimes be even brighter than Venus, which would make it the third brightest object in the sky. Viewing opportunities tend to occur in bunches, so you might get to see it a couple of times in a week and then go for a few weeks without a good viewing opportunity. Many stargazing phone apps can identify this and other bright satellites.

Then there are satellite constellations. The most well-known is Starlink. If you haven’t seen a chain of these satellites crossing the sky, you should get outside more often. These are the ones that most likely will cross your field of view during a long exposure photograph, and have caused many complaints from astronomers. On the plus side, they do give high-speed internet access to people living in remote areas, and I have friends who compare their upgraded internet access to the invention of sliced bread. Right after launch, these clusters of satellites are close together and can be very bright. Fortunately, in their final orbital position, they are much more spread out, and farther away, so much dimmer when viewed from the ground.

This month
  • The Perseid meteor shower is one of the best ones of the year. It lasts for almost a month, but the peak is this weekend. Because the moon is almost new, this could be one of the better years to enjoy it. Meteor showers are best seen with a dark-adapted naked eye, and a friend or two to help look at other parts of the sky.
  • The summer Milky Way is still prominent, so enjoy it while you can.
  • Saturn reaches opposition on Aug. 27, so it will be in a great place to view in the evening sky for the next few months. Jupiter rises a bit after midnight. It is prominent in the morning sky, but you will have to wait a couple of months if you are an evening observer.
  • August is a month with two full moons. You might read that it is a super, blue moon, but alas, those are both modern, pop-culture identifications. Yes, this full moon occurs near perigee, its closest approach to Earth, but it is not a blue moon, according to historical usage, and as I have explained in previous columns. A “true” blue moon is the third of four full moons in a season.
  • Coming up in October is the annular solar eclipse. The moon will pass in front of the sun, but it will be near the apogee of its orbit, so a bit farther away from us than its average distance. That means it can’t completely cover the sun and we will be left with a ring of fire around the edge. Although the complete ring of fire will be visible at nearby places such as Mesa Verde, Farmington and the Old Fort Lewis, Durango is unfortunately a few miles away from this total ring.

Charles Hakes teaches in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is the director of the Fort Lewis Observatory.