Any idea what I saw in the sky?

I recently saw something in the night sky that’s been puzzling me. It was a small dot of white light that seemed very far away. I would have thought it was a dim star, except it was moving across the sky. I’ve asked friends what they thought it might have been and they’ve suggested the following:

Airplane: I don’t think it was an airplane because, well, I’ve seen airplanes fly at night and this looked different. It seemed to be very far away and didn’t twinkle like an airplane light would. Also, there was no corresponding red light that I usually see on an airplane. However, it did move at the speed at which an airplane usually flies across the sky, to give you an idea of it’s speed.

Meteor: Don’t meteors usually travel very fast? I’ve seen shooting stars, and this didn’t travel anywhere near that fast.

Satellite: Aren’t satellites in synchronous orbit, which means it would have appeared stationary? Also, would one have bee big enough for me to see it with my naked eyes?

It’s a trivial matter, I know, but it’s been bugging me. I figured if anyone would know it would be here on the SDMB. I half expect people will say it was most likely an airplane flying at a very high altitude, but I like to think it was something more interesting.

Thank you in advance.

Not all satellites are in synchronous orbits. That would be your best bet at an explanation.

It was most likely a satellite. Not all satellites (in fact, relatively few of them) are in geosynchronous orbits, and reflections from solar panels, etc. can be fairly bright.

Also, you might want to see if Heavens Above can help you figure out what you saw.

It doesn’t have to be big, just to catch the sun at the right angle. We occasionally have the space-station parked overhead which is chunkier than your average satellite (and there’s no missing it) but it’s still just a bright spot it’s not as if you can see the solar panels or docked spacecraft.

Several years ago, I was at the local driving range, grooving all my mistakes, and happened to look up. Rather high in the night sky, due south of the range, I saw this small light moving slowly, directly north.

It shone steadily, no twinkling, and little by little, it got bigger and bigger, and finally, when it was very close, it turned out to be a plane. Judging by its size and 4 engines, I figured it to be a commercial airliner. I don’t recall seeing red or green lights on the wingtips; only the brilliant white light at the nose of the aircraft.

If this plane were off in the distance and moving horizontally, maybe all that I would have seen might have been the nose lamp in profile, so it would have been much, much smaller, with no increase in size. Perhaps, you, too, saw an airplane.

If you can look at a dark night sky away from city lights, you’ll probably see several satellites per hour. I think the clue that they are satellites is that there is no jet noise that would be associated with an airplane, as plane moving that fast across the sky would be at an altitude low enough to hear it.

Twice I’ve seen reflections off of a geosynchronous satellite during the day. It takes a few seconds to realize what it is. They only last a few minutes or less before the angles change and you can’t see the reflection anymore.

It might have been the International Space Station. Check the date, time and location here. Or it could have been on of the zillions of other satellites. These days it’s hard to look at the sky for more than 10 minutes, and not see one.

Yep, satellite. There are many of them. And when you think of it, there are several applications for which geosynchronous orbits don’t make sense, e.g. spy satellites, weather satellites, and general earth science observation platforms that you want to have making continous passes over new territory. I imagine it’s also a lot cheaper to lauch something into near Earth orbit.

Contrary to what you might expect, not all satellites are in an equatorial orbit. You can often see them on a north to south (or vice-versa) path.

One fun thing to do is to look for Iridium flares, which are the reflections of the sun off the solar panels of the Iridium satellites. They can be extremely bright for brief moments, and the path of the illumination is very predicatable.

If you’re near a desert, where you can see lots of sky, with little or no light pollution, lie on your back and pick an area in the sky. You’ll see lots of stuff floating around. Some the sattelites are old, and non-functioning, but just haven’t fallen down yet.

Oops, slight mistake. It’s the main mission antennae, protruding 40 degrees from the body of the satellite that cause the Iridium flares.

Interesting. I knew the SDMB would know the answer. Thanks everybody!!

I often go camping in central Wisconsin, and although the sky is now no longer pitch black, I have never been out at night that I didn’t see at least one satellite - in recent years. However, keep in mind that from the earth, the term, “satellite” can sort of refer to anything that’s in orbit. There’s tons of space junk out there - “dropped” tools, etc. that are all shiny enough to reflect back to us. The fun ones are those that have reflective and non-reflective surfaces and that tumble as they orbit. Those go on and off very slowly, at least until they move into the earth’s shadow and go dark for the rest of the evening. Enjoy the sky!