This Friday evening, a friend phoned me and as soon as I received the call, he exclaimed, “Zain, go outside. Quick!” Walking towards the balcony, I calmly asked if he was watching a moving object in the sky. “Err … yes”. “That is the ISS,” I said as I opened our balcony’s door, “and it is passing near the North Star just now”. “That is the what?”
By now I was outside and looking at the slowly moving beacon in the darkening sky. “That is the International Space Station or ISS, it just made a routine pass over Karachi and there are people aboard it”.
“Such a bright object can’t be a satellite,” he exclaimed. I told him it was in fact the largest satellite ever put in Earth’s orbit, it gets markedly brighter during certain passes and the astronauts in it have internet. They have also photographed Karachi at night from up there. “When’s the next pass?!”
I wasn’t surprised at my friend’s reaction because I’ve witnessed similar responses from other people. Many don’t realise that some very dazzling sights can be seen in the sky. The media has been abuzz these days with news of an asteroid almost half as big as a football field that passed uncomfortably close to Earth last Friday at 7.82 kilometers per second. Although the space rock, which was discovered last February and dubbed 2012 DA14, posed no risk of collision with Earth, it has passed closer than the multitudes of communication and navigation satellites circling Earth and was easy to see as a briskly moving dot using binoculars throughout Pakistan. Skywatching buffs in Karachi and other cities got together around the midnight of 15th Feb ‘13 to watch and photograph the object.
It is amazing what you can see even without binoculars or a telescope if you gaze skywards at the right time. Last February, I was flying to Jeddah late at night seated next to a window in a delayed flight of a PIA 747. I was awed by the sight of the lit cities and towns that drifted below us. I could almost feel as if I was orbiting the Earth in the ISS. Then I put a pillow behind my head to shield the window glass from reflecting the cabin lights. Several minutes passed, and lo and behold, I could see the misty band of our home galaxy, the Milky Way! I have seen it several times during our rutjugas - skywatching and sight-seeing trips to Balochistan and Sindh - but I found it hard to believe I should see it on my first trans-country flight.
A galaxy is basically a city of billions of stars. Galaxies also have numerous massive clouds of dust just the way human cities have lots of dirt and dust. And just like human cities are surrounded by suburbs, galaxies have suburbs which are home to smaller populations of stars.
From the airplane window, I was also admiring the king of globular clusters, Omega Centauri, with my unaided eyes. And then the most memorable thing happened - a bright meteor streaked across the sky! How many frequent travelers can claim having seen a meteor while flying at 40’000ft? Not many, I guess, and perhaps the only experience that beats this is watching a meteor from space itself. That is just what astronaut Ron Garan did from the International Space Station in August 2011: