Astronomy/Night Skys


I happened across your post to the naked eye question from 2007 and though you could be the perfect person to answer some questions I have as a casual but regular Erie observer. Please do not post this. Weather pemiting most evening for the last 2 years I take my cat out on the back patio, lay back in the gravity chair and see whats up there. My questions: Give that most satellites are in between 100 and 200 miles up how late at night is it possible to see the sunlight reflected from them. I have seen high altitude objects as late as 2:30 am and was wondering if I'm seeing sats. or aircraft(no blinking). Is there any possibility the military uses aircraft that have no blinking lights(or have the ability to turn them off) or is that madatory? I have also observed high alt. craft that strobe at a much slower rate(maybe every 4 sec.) than normal commercial planes. What is that about? Lastly a few days ago I saw a sat. moving bassicily South to North traveling faster than anything I had seen previously(rough est. maybe 1/3 the speed of a meteor or 3 or 4  times the normal sat. speed). What might that have been? I will ck your velocity site and would possibily be interested in attending a starparty, ECMOG event or chating with ohters just to further my own knowledge. I hope you can help me.

PS. My father taught metallurgy at Williamsport Community College(now a Penn State campus)

Thank you,
Rod Shaffer

Hi Rod,
I can't keep the answer private because that is up to the questioner to check that block.
Working from bottom to top on your questions, I'm sorry to report that after 21 years, our
ECMOG group has become "defunct"... A few of us still get together on occasion to observe at private residences, mainly down in Conneautville Pa for the dark skies. But there is no official "club" existing anymore.
And I think our ECMOG website has either been removed or not updated.  I don't have a Velocity account any longer.

Most satellites are in low Earth orbit, so most are only seen from sunset until about 2 hours after sunset, and that same 2 hour block before sunrise.  However, there are more and more higher altitude satellites, so you can see a few at like 1-3 am also... but not near as many, and most are on the dimmer, slower side due to their higher altitude.  (I too have seen them).

As far as your "higher speed" satellite, I would guess that one was in the process of a decaying orbit and was just about ready to enter the atmosphere and burn up... too bad you couldn't have followed it for a bit longer as you may have seen quite a show. (I've only ever seen one decay over Western PA, a Russian Proton rocket a few years ago, and it was spectacular at about -9th magnitude! It traveled 120 degrees from NW to East across our sky!)

As far as high altitude aircraft, I believe the SR-71 is in mothballs, except for one that NASA still flies (last I heard)... and the way things are going, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that either Russian or Chinese aircraft are over-flying us at a high altitude!
Or maybe the US Gov't and NSA/IRS has nightly "super-drones" spying on us at our outdoor barbeques!  NO joke HERE, think about it!
Clear Skies,
Tom     Erie, PA


All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Tom Whiting


Astronomy has been my hobby/pasttime for over 50 years.  Currently own 3 telescopes, the largest of which is a 30 inch Newtonian truss Dob that is portable.I taught Astronomy/Meteorology at the University Level for 13 years before retiring in 1995. Being retired and home most of the time, I am able to answer all questions relatively quickly, unless it's a new moon weekend with good observing conditions.  No astrology questions please, or questions about alleged UFO picture identifications.


Experience: Astronomy has been my hobby and study for over 50 years. We currently now own a 30 inch portable telescope (Updated - Pennsylvania`s largest portable telescope). It can be seen on our website at: and also attend several regional starparties during the year, and have been on 5 total solar eclipse expeditions.

Organizations: President, Erie County Mobile Observers Group for over 15 years.

Publications: Wrote the "Over Erie Skies" newspaper article in our local newspaper for 11 years (1975-86).

Education: Masters Degree- Taught at the University level for 13 years. Retired 20 years -USAF Pilot - KC-135 with 180 combat missions;  Also Eagle Scout, Philmont staff 2 Yrs, Order of Arrow Lodge Chief, Ham Radio (inactive).

Awards: two discoveries: The mini-coathanger asterism in Ursa Minor (the little dipper) And the mini-ladle- another asterism in the bowl of Ursa Minor. Clients: Currently President of the ECMOG as mentioned above.

BS  Metallurgical Engineering Grove City College, PAMaster's Degree, Gannon University, Erie, PA Also retired USAF pilot, 20 years.

©2016 All rights reserved.