Early Morning Skywatching and Teaching Satellite Concepts to Sherpas

This morning's viewing was at 4:48 am low in the North, so I was not sure I'd see things due to the brightening sky. As the two vehicles approached from due West I could only make out one fast moving light. But as the viewing geometry improved I was rewarded with two almost equally bright lights moving in clear association with one another - albeit briefly. Then the trees blocked my view. (My graphic is an attempt to draw what I saw).

While I was waiting there for the flyby I thought back the film "The Right Stuff" where a group of wise aborigines ponders the night sky while sparks fly up from a fire. I wondered what sort of cosmology a modern stone age tribe in Borneo isolated from the rest of the world would think of all these lights in the sky moving in ways our ancestors would never have seen. Imagine what sort of cosmology they might have created to explain such lights.

Two years ago today I was still heavily jet lagged after a 6 week trip to Nepal and Everest Base Camp. We saw lots of stars there - satellites too (when the mountains did not block them). I can recall one night in particular. It was after sunset. I was standing in a darkened pasture outside my lodging for the night in Dengboche. There were no external lights except for a bare low wattage lightbulb a few hundred meters away. At one point, a domestic farm animal (I think it was a cow/yak hybrid) kept bumping into me. It was really dark.

I was outside trying to get a clear shot on my Iridium phone to call my wife. With the high mountains blocking signals, my conversations with her ended up being 4-5 separate episodes of a minute or so each. The higher I got, the less I could get through. At one point, my sherpa Tashi came out and asked me why I was looking up at the sky. I told him that I was talking to my wife and that I could see the Iridium satellite I was talking through. They are in a distinctive orbit inclination of 86 degrees and are easy to spot.

Tashi is a gentle man with amazing stamina and the calm wisdom of Tibetan buddhists. He has summited Everest 12 times yet you'd never determine that from his demeanor. With his good English and smart business sense his first priority was to spend his money on sending his two children to "English school" in Kathmandu.

When it came to lights in the sky, Tashi did not know what I was talking about. He thought that they were airplanes (he's been on planes). When I pointed out some other satellites he quickly understood that I was referring to. But he did not understand how I could see something at night - overhead - that was lit only by sunlight. I pointed to one of the nearby mountains. Although it was dark, its tall summit was still lit by the sun. I asked him why this was happening and he knew the answer (of course) - that the mountain was very high and the sun lit it while the valleys were dark - the opposite of what happens in the morning.

I then told him to imagine a mountain 50 times as high - and that these satellites were shiny and sitting on the summit and the mountain moved. He instantly got it. Once he did, he'd check up on me on subsequent nights, often sighting an Iridium before I would.

One night the ISS was due to fly over - at a different angle - much brighter than the Iridiums. While Tashi now understood what satellites were he did not know what the ISS was. He had never heard of it. Yet he did know that people had walked on the Moon. By now I had explained who my friend Scott (Parazynski) was and that he had lived on that light in the sky. Tashi thought that all astronauts walked on the Moon. The idea that people lived on a light in the sky was a new concept to him.

This surprised me - but then again with by techno-Western biases, it did not. If I had been brought up with rural education and only a smattering of western news I might have held a similar view. Once these ideas were in Tashi's head you could see that they were churning around. I knew sooner or later he'd ask me to point out the satellite that my larger BGAN (INMARSAT) phone communicated with - a satellite in geosynchronous orbit - i.e. a satellite that did NOT move in the sky from the perspective of someone on Earth.

Every little village in Nepal these days has a dish or two pointing at the sky. They use these dishes to provide overpriced and spotty Internet service to trekkers. One night I was in Tengboche out in a small field (again with Yaks) doing a live interview with Miles O'Brien who was hosting some conference session in Atlanta. ( see "Webcasting from a Foggy Buddhist Monastery") I had my BGAN pointed at the sky in a similar way to the Internet cafe's dish. I had every flashlight I could think of pointing at me such that I could appear on the webcam. This drew the attention of everyone else at the lodge. They next day Tashi told me that they local folks were wondering if I was stealing the Internet Cafe's radio from the sky. They did not know that their dish - or mine - pointed at satellites.

When Tashi did ask about my BGAN I explained it by having him rotate in one spot while I ran around him in a circle trying to keep in his field of view. Once he got that concept I then moved closer to him and sped up and he also got an understanding as to why closer satellites moved faster. Satellites are really not that difficult of a concept to explain.

In the coming days I would see him pointing to the sky at night while talking to other Sherpas. Yes, he later told me, he was teaching them about satellites. Soon I managed to explain GPS to him. He had seen these devices but had always assumed they were fancy radios with computers inside that all the climbers and trekkers had.

Of course, this entire time, I was carrying four small Apollo 11 moon rocks inside a lucite bubble. Tashi was fascinated by this as was every other Sherpa - young or old - that I encountered on the way. Indeed, they all thought these little flecks of the Moon were sacred - especially after I had them blessed at a monastery.

But that's another story.

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