Space Station Spotting

Space Station Spotting

Up above! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a very expensive blip in the sky . . .

The International Space Station. (click for larger version)


August 21, 2008

Every 90 minutes, the International Space Station (ISS) orbits the Earth approximately 220 miles above the planet. If you have even a passing interest in NASA’s ventures, it’s worth spending a few minutes on select evenings for a glimpse of the space station as it passes overhead. It’s fascinating to be able to sit in your backyard and know that the brightly lit object is home to astronauts from various countries living aboard what Arthur C. Clarke once imagined in his epic novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In 1995, the United States began sending space shuttle flights to Russia’s Mir Space Station (which is roughly a quarter the size of the ISS), allowing American astronauts to experience long stays. In 1998, construction of the ISS began. Since November of 2000, it has continually been inhabited by astronauts and cosmonauts, with occasional visits by scientists from other nations, as well as high-rolling billionaires who buy trips to the ISS from the Russians, for approximately $20 million per journey.

Due to its solar panels, the ISS is so bright that there’s no need to drive away from city lights to spot the craft. Some sighting opportunities are better than others. The NASA web site ( details when and where to look and indicates how many degrees from Earth’s horizon the space station will appear as well as it’s highest point during the flyover. On an ideal evening, the ISS will appear in the western sky, with a high point at 45 to 60 degrees. It is visible for only one to four minutes

One note: in typical government fashion, the info on the NASA page is less than clear. On Wednesday, August 27, for example, the site lists the Space Station as being visible at 4:56 a.m. from “Approach (DEG-DIR): 43 above S.” This means the Station will become visible at 43 degrees above the horizon if you are looking South (90 degrees would be directly overhead). The site also lists the maximum elevation the Station will reach during each sighting, which in this case is 53 degrees. &

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