The "Tethered" Space Satellite

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My Observation - March 8, 1996

I was only able to observe the TSS once, a very cold March morning shortly after I discovered from a satellite tracking web page that it had been seen by other amateurs and was visible as more than just a dot moving through the sky.  My alarm was set to radio and didn't wake me until about five minutes after it went off.   After rushing through getting dressed and grabbing my binoculars I was sure I was too late to see it so I didn't grab my camera.  Once I got outside there was a cold wind blowing from the north that I couldn't seem to shield myself from.  I waited about five minutes and I was sure that I must have missed it when I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye...

It came out of the south east  moving east north east.  The first glimpse I caught was the TSS moving behind some thin high  clouds.  It came out from behind the clouds right after I looked straight at it.   It looked like a pretty bright short line about two degrees long moving east across the sky through the top of Scorpius toward the growing twilight in the east. The line was oriented from NNE to SSW.  It had an unreal feel to it, the first time I had seen a straight line moving across the sky.  It also had a ghostly glow to it.  From what I hear, that glow may have come from the ionization of the rarified atmosphere from the electricity it was still generating.  In the binoculars the satellite at one end of the cord was visible as a bright point at the NNE end. 

It was only visible for a couple of minutes, but it is one of my most unique sights of my life.  I got up to try to see it and photograph it a couple of more times, but I never got another look.  The orbit predictions became progressively less reliable as it got lower in the atmosphere and finally burned up later in the month.


A photo of the TSS as they were reeling it out. It was taken through a window into the cargo bay from inside the Shuttle.

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A photograph from the Shuttle shortly after the tether broke on February 26, 1996.  Approximately 12 miles of the tether had been released.
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A close up of the tether, only 1/10 of an inch thick.
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A  frame from a video of the tethered satellite taken by Dr. Kym Thalassoudis of Adelaide, Australia.