Starshine 3


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Starshine 3 to Give
Fireworks Farewell
by Stephanie Wong

Starshine 3 is the third spacecraft in the series of the Starshine Project, developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory.  This tiny satellite is designed to study the Earth's atmosphere and the solar wind, while also getting students around the world to actively participate in the mission.  Students were given tiny aluminum mirrors to polish.  The 1500 mirrors were then assembled onto a spherical shell, ready to be launched.  While in space, the shiny mirrors reflect light from the sun, and students track its flash rate and trajectory in the nighttime sky.  Over many months of submitted observations, the scientists learn about the space environment. Starshine 2 deployed by STS-108.
Image Credit: NASA/JSC

Starshines 1 and 2 were launched aboard the space shuttle.  Starshine 3 was launched on 29 September 2001 -- "piggybacking" aboard an Athena I rocket -- from Kodiak Island, Alaska, USA.  Released at an orbit of 470 km (294 mi), Starshine 3 has been orbiting the Earth for over a year.  However, it will not be in orbit indefinitely.  Atmospheric friction and the solar wind is causing the unpropelled satellite to slow down and thus, begin spiralling to its fiery end in the Earth's inner atmosphere.  Starshine 3 is predicted to deorbit mid- to late-January 2003.

To try to track Starshine as it fireballs across the sky, refer to the Satellite Tracking websites listed at the bottom of this page.  You will need fairly dark and clear skies to catch a glimpse of Starshine as it burns up.  If visible, it should look like a faint streak of light, much like a single meteor in a meteor shower.

For the astrophotographically savvy, try to take a picture or video tape of the burn-up.  Submit your photo or video of Starshine 3's last minutes to Starshine Project Manager, Gil Moore (, and you might win an International Space Station scale model kit!

Note that even if you do not manage to see Starshine 3 along its orbit or descent, your time is well-spent!  Starshine 3 should be at around magnitude 10 (which is an astronomer ranking system for the brightness of a star) prior to burn-up.  That means it will only be visible with a modest-sized telescope.  During its descent, it might be visible to the naked-eye, but like any re-entering satellite, they pass through the sky quickly.  While you're outside, be sure to take a look at the surrounding stars and planets.  You might even find something more interesting(!) than the Starshine fireball!  For those in the Northern Hemisphere, the Orion constellation, the Big Dipper, Jupiter and Saturn are just a few of the eye-catching spectacles in the sky this January!  Talk to your local astronomy club for more information!

Future Starshine missions are in development.  Starshine 4 is currently being assembled, but it is still waiting to be scheduled on a shuttle flight.  Accompanying Starshine 4 will be Starshine 5, an inflatable, mirrorless satellite.  Plans for upcoming years are in planning, so stay tuned!

Starshine 1 being deployed. Starshine 1 is deployed by
astronaut Julie Payette on
mission STS-96 in 1999.

Image Credit: NASA/JSC

Solar-Terrestrial Interactions

The sun spews out tons and tons of hot, ionized matter from its surface every second.  When the sun becomes more active than normal, it can emit solar flares or produce a large Coronal Mass Ejection (CME).  If by chance that this CME spews material in a direction that is on a crash-course with the Earth, you might expect above-normal auroral activity (Northern or Southern Lights) a few days later when the material interacts with our magnetosphere.  The magnetosphere is the large "bubble" of magnetic field surrounding our planet that causes the incoming solar particles, called the solar wind, to be buffeted, and redirected towards the magnetic poles on Earth or ricocheted off to space.  If the solar particles "leak" into the poles, they will collide with the upper atmosphere to produce colourful auroras (or aurorae).

But besides pretty skies, the solar wind does affect us in a more serious manner.  High solar activity may mean that there are many more high-speed particles that reach Earth's atmosphere and could disable orbiting satellites or interrupt communications systems.  With regard to Starshine 3, this solar wind can actually hit the satellite and slow it down!  Starshine 3's rotational rate and orbit decay can tell us about how the sun is behaving and interacting with our atmosphere.

Atmospheric Friction

Rub your hands together real fast.  Does it feel hot?  When you're on a rollercoaster, do you feel the wind push at your face and almost making it feel scorched?  You've experienced frictional heating and force.  Starshine 3 is moving extremely fast in its orbit around Earth.  Although it is largely outside of Earth's atmosphere, there are still enough particles that can heat and slow down the satellite.  Similar to walking against the wind on a windy day, Starshine 3 is "dragged" back by the atmosphere.  When it slows down, its orbital radius decreases and it slowly falls towards Earth.  When it gets too close to the Earth, where the atmosphere is thick, there is so much friction that it literally glows and disintegrates in the atmosphere.  By measuring Starshine 3's orbital decay, one can characterize the density of the Earth's atmosphere.

Satellite Tracking Websites

Heavens Above
Excellent website for tracking almost anything in the sky.

Liftoff to Space Exploration
A NASA website containing 2D and 3D maps of thousands of satellites in orbit.  You can also use J-Pass to generate satellite passes from your location or to even receive passes from your favorite satellite via E-mail.

Starshine-Related Links

Project Starshine's Official Website
Go here to get the latest information about the Starshine satellites and for information about the latest orbital decay data.

Science@NASA Article: A Disco Ball in Space
Further information about the Starshine 3 spacecraft.
A NASA site with the latest news on solar-terrestrial physics.

Space Shuttle Wakeup Call - STS-96 - "Good Morning Starshine"
Windows Media Player, RealPlayer)
Listen to the wakeup call sent to the crew of STS-96, hours before the deployment of Starshine 1.  Features audio of astronaut Dan Barry and CAPCOM Mario Runco.

Información del Starshine en español

- 6 January 2003


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Last Updated:
13 January 2003

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