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Skywatcher

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

Given the time of year the photo was taken, it might be tempting to think of the two shining dots pictured in the night sky as Santa's sleigh and the Star of Bethlehem.

But instead of holiday sentimentality, think man-made and high tech to explain the temporary brightness in the firmament on Nov. 25, 2009.

Amateur astronomer J.D. Sexton of Pipers Gap captured an image of these lights while showing his grandson — perhaps the next generation of skywatcher — the galaxies.

The glow of reflected sunlight came off NASA's space shuttle, followed by the International Space Station — both about 200 miles above Earth.

This was one day after the shuttle disembarked from the orbiting satellite and headed back home to land.

"My little 5-year-old grandson was with me," Sexton recalled. "I take him out to look at stars and constellations. It tickled him to death because he got to see the shuttle pass by."

They watched the objects heading to the east until they faded away when the sun effectively set on them.

"I've seen it before, but not both of them together," Sexton said.

He has long sought the heavens for interesting phenomena.

"I've just been interested in astronomy ever since I was a kid," Sexton said. "I always wanted to be an astronaut."

As that interest developed, Sexton kept his feet on the ground, but kept looking at the stars.

In his scrapbook, Sexton has photos of meteor showers, the Hale-Bopp comet, lunar and solar eclipses, alignments of the planets, Mars, craters on the moon and more.

He can capture images of what he sees, but he never invested in the kind of camera really needed to take photos of the stars and planets. Instead, Sexton has hooked up his video camera to film the skies.

Sexton's was hoping for a clear night last month, because a meteor shower was supposed to be on the way, with about 130 meteors coming into the atmosphere an hour. Sexton has heard two explode after they hit the air and caught images of smoke trails from when they burned up.

One such shot occurred right in front of the Big Dipper.

It's good family entertainment, and he'd like to see more youth get interested in astronomy.