To the casual sky gazer it looks like an airplane without the blinking lights. But, in fact, it is mankind's most ambitious space station streaking across the night sky -- the Soviet space station Mir.
And the National Space Society's Aleta Jackson wants to make sure people see it. For the past year, cosmonauts have manned Mir, performing scientific experiments while orbiting about 200 miles above Earth. Jackson answers the Society's Mir hot line and provides an itinerary for the caller to see the best of Mir's upcoming 90-minute orbits. Since it began operating four months ago, the hot line has answered about 2,000 calls about the space station.
Expecting to hear a tape machine, people who call find the hot line is live. So, they hang up, says Greg Barr, deputy executive director for the National Space Society here. "It's the only way to do it," says Barr, explaining that day-by-day the Soviets change Mir's course. "We have to handle these calls live.
"What's surprising," he adds, "is how many people don't know about the Soviet space station. We want to let people know that the Soviets have a serious, aggressive space program. It's a question of awareness."
Not only does Jackson receive calls from amateur astronomers, but from amateur radio enthusiasts and the just-plain curious as well. In fact, she says, the radio enthusiasts tell her that it's possible to eavesdrop on the cosmonauts' conversation whenever Mir passes overhead. Jackson explains that Mir can be picked up on 143.625 MHz (MegaHertz), using an air-and-police band radio. One enthusiast sent Jackson a tape recording of a cosmonaut singing a ballad. Jackson says she thinks the string instrument accompanying the singing was a balalaika.
The next good sighting of Mir as it passes over the metropolitan area, according to William E. Howard III, of the Naval Space Command, is expected next Sunday during the dinner hour. The space station will rise at about 6:36 p.m. from the southwest horizon, move high (68 degrees) to the southeast at 6:41 p.m., and set in the east-northeast a few minutes later.
For more information, the hot line's number is (202) 546-6010. If you call from outside the Washington area, it is a toll call. People who see the space station qualify for an "I saw Mir" button from the society.
Besides Mir, this month's most spectacular sky theater comes from the moon, Jupiter and Venus, as they glide across the western sky on Feb. 20, in the early evening. It's a celestial show that dramatically emphasizes how much the moon actually moves from orbit to orbit. The crescent sits directly above Venus that night, when Jupiter is to the upper left of the bright duo.
The next night, Feb. 21, the moons sits above Jupiter, leaving Venus all by herself to the lower right. By Feb. 23, the moon sits to the left of Jupiter and Venus. Venus is the brightest night object in the sky, besides the moon.
The first comet that has been discovered this year may be visible enough to see through binoculars late in the spring from our area, according to Geoff Chester, of the Einstein Planetarium at the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum. Comet 1988A was sighted by William Liller on Jan. 12, in Chile. Chester says that, by May, the comet could be high enough in the northern hemisphere's sky to put it in easy view of Washingtonians.
Down-to-Earth Events Feb 6 -- Jim O'Leary, director of the Davis Planetarium in Baltimore, explains the process of life and death in the winter sky. At the Einstein Planetarium, Air & Space Museum, 9:30 a.m. Free.
Feb. 6 -- The National Capital Astronomers sponsor a lecture by NASA's Robert D. Chapman, on "The Space Station as an Astronomical Observatory." The lecture focuses on the future support of human observations of space from a platform. Einstein Planetarium. 7:30 p.m. Free.
Feb. 13 -- Bring a telescope and a friend for the Star Watch at the Goddard Visitor's Center, 7-9 p.m. Free.
Feb. 13 and 14 -- John Glenn orbits the earth in the historical documentary "Friendship 7" playing at the Goddard Visitor's Center. 1 p.m., both days. Admission is free.
Feb 17 -- Gerrit Verschuur expounds on life's origins in space, using evidence from radio astronomy. Einstein Planetarium, 7:30 p.m. Free.
Feb. 28 -- Charles Sturgell on "Spacecraft Sensors: Our Eyes in the Skies." He will explain the work in the field of sensors in stellar and solar astronomy. Goddard Visitor's Center, 1 p.m. Free.
The Space-Fiction Film Series continues at the Air & Space Museum. Shows begin each Friday at 7:30 p.m. "Man From Planet X" leads off on Feb. 5, "Monolith Monsters" on Feb. 12. "Star Man" on Feb. 19, and "E.T., the Extraterrestrial" on Feb. 26. Admission is free, except for "E.T.," which cost $1.