for National Geographic News
The nighttime launch of NASA's space shuttle Discovery could provide a dazzling display for the North American eastern seaboard this week—as long as clouds stay out of the way.
Discovery may lift off Sunday night—its Wednesday night launch was canceled hours before the scheduled takeoff—from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and proceed northeast over the ocean nearly parallel to the U.S. East Coast. (See a map of the shuttle's path.)
Weather permitting, people within about a 500-mile (800-kilometer) radius of the central Florida coast will be able to see the flare from the shuttle's solid-fuel rocket launchers two seconds after launch for about two minutes.
From two to eight minutes after launch, Discovery's main engines will make the shuttle seem to burn like a flickering, yellow-orange star.
People with binoculars may even be able to make out the shuttle's V-shaped tail.
This stage of the event should be visible to sky-watchers as far north as the southern tip of Nova Scotia and as far west as the Appalachian Mountains.
But observers will need an unobstructed view, as the shuttle will appear very low to the horizon—no higher than the width of a fist on an outstretched arm.
Richard McColman of the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, notes that the planetarium has not organized an event around the shuttle launch.
"We like to have events that are a little more certain," he said.
IBM computer programmer Robert Nielsen had higher hopes, at least before Wednesday's launch was postponed. The amateur astronomer said he's long harbored a soft spot for the NASA craft.
He and fellow members of the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS) had planned to head about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of Raleigh to try and glimpse the shuttle.
"I hope I can actually see it," he said.
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