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Last Chance to Observe the Space Shuttle

7-8-11 Space Shuttle Launch

A 2009 Launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis. Credit: NASA

If you haven’t already watched the space shuttle as it sails silently overhead in the night sky, your last chance is approaching. The final space shuttle is scheduled for launch on July 8, 2011. After launch, the path of the shuttle will be tracked by websites such as NASA and Heavens-Above.com. Simply input your location to find out when to look for the shuttle above your area.

STS-135, the final flight of Atlantis and the final mission of all the space shuttles, is scheduled to spend 12 days in space while it docks with the International Space Station (ISS). Only four astronauts will partake in the final mission. Many people have asked what comes after the space shuttle, but the truth is there is no rocket waiting in the wings to take Americans back into space. There is a lot of debate over whether ending the program without transitioning into the next phase of space exploration is a smart idea, but we’ll concentrate instead on our last view of this historic time.

The space shuttle can be seen after sunset when the sun’s light still reaches up high into the layer of atmosphere above Earth known as the thermosphere. The sun reflects off the space shuttle, making it visible as a fairly bright light that glides silently across the sky. When the shuttle connects up to the ISS, the “point” of light looks more oblong and shines more brightly. Catch it in binoculars to see the separate objects. Spotting the shuttle before sunrise is also an option for some locations.

Sunlight hitting the upper atmosphere and illuminating objects above the night side of Earth is also how we view satellites and noctilucent clouds. The Heavens-Above.com website can also inform you as to what other manmade objects are sailing overhead each night. Noctilucent clouds have been spotted recently as far south as the northern tier of the United States, so you may want to keep an eye out for them as well while you are looking for the space shuttle.

Read more about satellite gazing.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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