For a fun family activity, at certain points in time and space you can try spotting the International Space Station (ISS) as it orbits the Earth. Here’s a quick guide on the how, when, where, and why of observing this space station.
The sighting opportunities to spot the ISS from Earth range from a few within a week to once a month. Although it’s only visible for a few minutes when it’s overhead, it’s a fun experience.
What’s the International Space Station?
A collaboration of countries that included the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and several European countries created the ISS, which is a large spacecraft that orbits the Earth.
It is home for astronauts for several months at a time. It’s also a science laboratory with experimentation and data collection on board. A lot of it involves learning more about space and how humans can live and interact in an environment like the space station for lengthy periods. But there’s also analyses of solar energy reaching Earth and this…
Many pieces comprise the ISS, which is put together in space by astronauts.
Some quick facts about the ISS include:
- The ISS orbits the Earth at an altitude of about 250 miles (400 km)
- It travels at a speed of about 17,500 mph (28,000 km/hr)
- The mass of the ISS is 925,335 lb (419,725 kg)
To spot it, you’ll need to have the timing and location for your area.
How the ISS Looks to the Naked Eye
It’s a decent size, so we can see the ISS from Earth with the naked eye from Earth. When you look up at the night sky, you’ll see it as a bright, fast-moving object.
Spotting the ISS with the naked eye is quite easy. It shines like a moving star and can appear 16 times brighter than some of the brightest stars in the sky. This is because it’s large enough, roughly 356 feet by 240 feet (109 m x 73 m – about the size of a football field), to reflect a significant amount of sunlight.
Don’t expect to see the station during the daytime. But you could look for it around dawn or dusk, when the reflection is most noticeable.
If you’re like me, you’ll pick the space station moving in quite a distinct fashion. It moves fast, but not as fast as a meteor shower. It appears like a fast-moving plane, but much higher in the sky and traveling thousands of miles an hour faster.
To know when and where to look for the ISS, check NASA’s Spot the Station website. By entering your location, you’ll get information on when the ISS will be overhead and the direction to look toward.
Also, consider signing up for alerts around 12 hours before each sighting opportunity.
Visual Distinction from Other Objects
In my experience, the ISS is distinct from stars and planets, because of its steady and fairly fast movement across the sky.
While its brightness may resemble that of some stars, it is the combination of brightness and movement that sets it apart.
Time and Location for ISS Spotting
You’ll need to know where to look and when, to avoid confusion with other objects in the sky. For that reason, it’s worth checking the information provided by Spot the Station or other similar tools.
Using Websites and Apps
When I want to spot the ISS in the sky, I use websites or apps that provide real-time and accurate information, such as Spot The Station by NASA.
Another great resource is the Space Station Finder, where I can simply enter my city or regional code to get the ISS viewing times for my area.
Mobile apps also provide you with that help. For example, ISS Detector Satellite Tracker for both Android and iOS is a handy tool to check for ISS sightings and receive notifications.
Email and Text Notifications
If you’re like me, you’re not one into constantly checking websites and apps. If that’s the case, you can instead choose to sign up for email and text notifications. NASA’s Spot The Station offers this service where you get timely alerts of when the ISS will be visible from your location.
Another option is to follow organizations like Spot the ISS on social media platforms that provide regular updates and alerts about ISS sightings.
Ideal Conditions for Viewing
To spot the ISS, it’s good to have the ideal conditions and this includes the weather, light pollution, and the time of day.
Clear skies are essential for a successful sighting. Clouds and rain will obstruct the view. It’s a good idea to check your local weather forecast before planning an ISS spotting session.
The level of light pollution in your area can interfere with a good sighting of the ISS. Urban streetlights and illuminated buildings can interfere. You might want to venture out to more rural, darker areas for a better chance of sighting it.
Time of Day
As I mentioned earlier, use apps or the NASA’s Spot the Station website to find out when the ISS will be visible near you. You can then tailor the timings for your specific location to increase your chances of sighting the station.
Using Equipment for Enhanced Viewing
It’s a moving object in the sky, so you will have the challenge of tracking the it, if you intend using equipment for enhanced viewing of the ISS.
It’s essential to hold the binoculars steady. And since the space station moves relatively fast you’ll want the tripod or your alternative support to have the ability to give you the freedom to track the ISS.
Since the ISS is visible to the naked eye, locate it first without any equipment and then switch to binoculars. While using binoculars, keep in mind that the ISS will look like a bright point of light.
With a telescope, it’s possible to see the actual shape of the ISS and other details, such as the solar panels.
However, it’s worth noting that, unlike other night sky objects of interest, tracking the space station with a telescope is the challenge due to its fast-moving nature.
To be successful, you’d need a telescope with a motorized mount that will track the ISS smoothly across the sky.
In setting up your telescope, you’d want to make sure you have a sturdy mount or tripod that’s properly balanced and aligned.
Facts about the International Space Station
I already mentioned its size and mass above – it’s an impressive size for a man-made structure in space! Here are a few other facts about the ISS.
The ISS orbits Earth travels at a whopping speed of thousands of miles/hour at an altitude of about 248 miles above the surface.
Crew and Missions
One of the most fascinating aspects of the ISS is its international crew and missions.
There are usually six astronauts onboard at any given time, representing a collaboration of nations and space agencies.
I find it amazing that they live and work together in such a confined space, conducting scientific research and technology development.
Starlink Satellite vs ISS
The International Space Station (ISS) and Starlink satellites are very different, each with distinct purposes and capabilities.
You’ll find a lot of information elsewhere on the internet about Starlinks. Here I give a quick summation just to brief you on the difference as an observer of the night sky.
While the ISS is a large, habitable space station that is a joint project between several space agencies. Starlink satellites are part of a constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites launched by SpaceX.
The ISS orbits Earth at an altitude of about 408 kilometers (250 miles) whereas Starlink satellites orbit Earth at an altitude of about 550 kilometers (340 miles). This is much lower than traditional communications satellites, which typically operate in geostationary orbit at an altitude of about 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles).
The Starlink satellites are much smaller than the ISS and are not designed to be inhabited by humans. They are designed to provide high-speed internet access to users around the world, particularly in rural and remote areas where traditional internet infrastructure is not available or reliable.
The ISS is a complex scientific research facility that supports human spaceflight, while Starlink satellites are part of a commercial venture to provide internet access.
The exact appearance of a Starlink satellite in the night sky can vary depending on factors such as the satellite’s altitude, the observer’s location, and the time of day. However, in general, a single Starlink satellite appears as a bright, moving point of light that stands out against the dark background of the night sky.