Star Points for January, 2007; by Curtis Roelle
Shuttle Discovery Launch Observed by Marylanders

The slip of the space shuttle mission STS-116 Discovery's December night time launch from a Thursday to a Saturday may have helped many Marylanders. The orange-ish pink light from Discovery's three main engines as it rocketed into orbit was visible in the Maryland's mostly clear skies. Tips for watching the launch -- not on TV but with the naked eye -- was the subject of last month's column.

As during several previous night launches I observed it from the hill in my back yard near New Windsor. A photograph I made during launch is posted on the Star Points web site at

Soon after Discovery's successful launch reports began pouring in from excited readers who saw Discovery blasting into space with its seven person crew low in the eastern sky as it traveled up Maryland's coastline out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Kim Hildreth was also viewing from his home in the New Windsor area. Kim observed "for about 60 - 90 seconds" using 8x42 and 16x80 binoculars. His report also described Discovery's location as "low in the south moving towards the east. Elevation seemed to stay the same until I lost it among the trees to the East."

East of Carroll County and closer to the shuttle's flight path, the Westminster Astronomical Society (WASI) was hosting a previously scheduled public star party at Baltimore County's Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area. Because of Discovery's schedule slip the launch occurred smack in the middle of the star party much to the delight of 60 persons of all ages in attendance, according to Skip Bird the WASI organizer. WASI president Dave Gede was the first to spot the ascending space shuttle at the star party.

The farthest west observation I received was by Tom Renn in Frederick. He climbed out of a second story window onto the roof of his house to see Discovery flying low in the east. Guess I should add "don't try this at home" unless you are an experienced observer, like Tom.

The most interesting report came from Brad and Susan Hebble of Westminster. Brad is a teacher at West Middle School. Brad's brother Jeff is a graduate of Purdue University where he was roommates with Mark Polansky, Discovery's commander. Jeff and his daughter traveled from Chicago to Cape Canaveral with two VIP viewing passes as Mark's personal guests at the launch.

Susan read last month's Star Points and wanted to try viewing Discovery's night flight. According to Susan, she and Brad watched the launch on TV "as you suggested, then went outside to look for it. Seven minutes later, just as you predicted, it appeared in the sky for...maybe 30 seconds or so." Moments after Susan and Brad's observation their telephone rang. It was Jeff calling from Florida giving them an eye witness report of the launch. Because of Brad and Susan's effort, they were in a position to do likewise. Susan's e-mailed report concluded, saying "Thanks for suggesting that we take the time to look for the shuttle, it never crossed my mind that we would be able to see it from Carroll County."

The next space shuttle flight is mission STS-117, the Atlantis. Launch is scheduled for March 16, 2007 in morning twilight at 06:20 EDT. I like launches in morning twilight better than in the evening. When the sun is below the horizon with its light striking the ascending orbiter its belching gasses glitter and sparkle. Also, when the main engines shut down the sunlit orbiter may still be visible, especially in binoculars.

Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off above MTO

STS-116 Discovery ascends into Earth orbit using powered ascent on its way to visit the International Space Station during a rare night space shuttle lift off on Saturday, December 9, 2006. It traveled from south to north (right to left), the thrust from its three main engines creating the faint streak visible across the center of the image. The two stars near the left edge of the frame are, from left to right, Delta Lupi and Gamma Lupi.