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The Straight Dope


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In the late 50s after Sputnik was launched, I used to see it crossing the sky at sunset from my parents' backyard in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. The sunlight would reflect from the satellite's skin and I would see it like a small moving star in the early evening. Today there are hundreds of satellites up there, but do I ever see any? No. Why is this? Is it the polluted atmosphere? Orbits that aren't visible from LA? The satellites are too high (although I understood Sputnik was rather high at 500 miles)? Too much city light in the atmosphere? Nonreflective skins? --Melissa Mills, Sherman Oaks, California

Not enough publicity, more like it, although the things you mentioned also play a role. Satellite viewings were a big deal in the late 50s. Times and tips for best viewing were featured in the papers and people used to organize satellite-watching parties. (Surely you remember the aluminum lawn chairs.) Today satellites have joined touch-tone phones and color TV on the list of technological marvels we now take for granted, so you don't get all the helpful hints.

The older satellites were also easier to see. Many boomers no doubt recall watching the Echo I and Echo II satellites, highly reflective mylar spheres 30 and 45 meters in diameter. Echo II, the larger, is said to have been brighter than Venus. Both Echoes are now gone, as is Skylab, another celestial bright spot.

Other factors: in many cities local light output has risen sharply over the past 30 years, obscuring many satellites. Satellites today are often in high orbits; the geosynchronous orbits used by communications satellites are 36,000 km out. Finally, Cecil's conjecture: the first satellites were spherical and could be viewed from a wide angle, while satellites today are irregularly shaped and from some angles are invisible.

The brightest objects in the sky these days are the Russian Mir space station and the Hubble Space Telescope (visible in the southern U.S.). Check out the satellite-viewing section on CompuServe's astronomy forum for spotting tips. If you're serious about this you can buy a satellite-tracking program for your PC, download orbital data, and make what was once an idle childhood diversion into a lifetime obsession. But satellites are up there if you know where to look.


In your recent article regarding the best pronunciation of the phrase "class of '00" [July 23], you missed what I think is the best alternative. For euphony and clarity, nothing beats "class of aught-zero" in my opinion. This matches standard usage where the combination of the apostrophe and first zero have traditionally been called "aught." I think "aught" is much clearer than "oh" (both are one syllable) since it signals that we are referring to an abbreviated year number rather than one of the many other uses of "oh." As for brevity:

Oh-oh: Two syllables, but poor because of ambiguous connotations and tendency to sound indistinct (uh-oh, uh-uh, uh-huh, oh-ho!).

Aught-aught: Two syllables. Okay, but not very euphonious.

Aughty-aught: Three syllables. Contrived, "aughty" is not a real word.

Two-thousand: Three syllables. Okay, but leads to four-syllable names for 2001, 2002, etc.

Aught-zero: Three syllables. Leads to nice two-syllable names for 2001, 2002, etc.

Zero-zero: Four syllables. Sounds like the score in a close ball game. --Sincerely yours in the quest for a more positive zero, John Stephenson

My great-grandmother's class of 1900 at Mount Holyoke College called themselves the Class of Naughty-Naught. She assured me it was because they viewed themselves as naughty. --Jay Vivian

I am sympathetic to the logical approach of the aught-zero bloc, John. But I suspect many high school and college seniors, lacking your maturity, will succumb to the blandishments of the naughty-naught crowd.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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