Have you ever watched a satellite pass overhead? It’s a thrilling experience to know a man-made object travelling in excess of 17,000 mph is circling our big blue marble above. Today, there are more man-made satellites in orbit around the Earth than ever before and many are visible regularly, but none are more impressive than the International Space Station or ISS.
First launched in 1998, the ISS is a joint project of NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). It now has 159 components assembled over more than 1000 EVA (extra-vehicular activity) hours. The ISS is an impressive 239 ft. long and 336 ft. wide, making it our largest artificial satellite in orbit. The station carries a full crew of 6 and to watch them pass overhead inspires a sense of wonder and fascination in children and adults alike. How to see it isn’t half as difficult as one might think. A variety of resources are available to tell you when and where to look.
Heavens Above is a great resource developed by Chris Peat and hosted by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). This astronomy and satellite prediction service uses NASA’s ISS orbital elements to predict viewing of the ISS for the geographic location you select. It also predicts passes for a variety of other satellites, including the famous Iridium satellites, which can brighten dramatically when their highly polished antennae reach optimal angles to reflect the Sun. Since the ISS doesn’t always pass over the same places on Earth, Heavens Above is a great resource to determine the best time to observe it.
In addition to the Heavens Above website, yep, you guessed it, there is an app for that. Enter “ISS TRACKER” into the Google app store and scroll through the wealth of free and premium apps to help locate the ISS and even alert you when it’s about to be visible. Heaven’s Above has their own app, but there are several others to choose from.
NASA has also launched the High-Definition Earth-Viewing System or HDEV to permit non-astronauts to see what the ISS crew experiences in real-time. A module containing 4 cameras mounted below the station alternates views between forward, aft, and nadir (down). You and your kids can watch the glorious Earth pass by at an impressive 5 miles per second. The links below allow you to view live streaming from the ISS HDEV camera module.
If you’re a gadget geek like me, one of the coolest gadgets to help observe the ISS is called ISS Above (http://issabove.com/). ISS Above was developed by Liam Kennedy, a web streaming guru, amateur astronomer, and former President of the Orange County Astronomers (http://www.ocastronomers.org/). Liam developed a program that works with a device based on the Raspberry Pi platform and your TV to alert you to an impending pass. It also links to the live streaming camera view and map to show you where the ISS is and what it’s seeing.
The internet has made this one of the most exciting times to be an amateur astronomer and space enthusiast. Not only can we anticipate and view the space station passing by with its astronauts and cosmonauts aboard, many of them are even on Twitter now so you can view comments and photos almost immediately.
Whatever method you choose locate the ISS with, there is now nothing to keep you from seeing the space station as it whizzes by, except for clouds perhaps. It is very easily seen with your naked eye, but binoculars can also be useful. If you have a camera that has a manual mode, try framing the lens to the area of sky indicated in the prediction. Set the ISO to 400 or 800 and once you see the ISS allow the shutter to stay open for 10-30 seconds or more. You might capture the streak of the ISS as is passes. If the sky looks too bright, lower the ISO and/or the exposure duration. This can take practice and it’s important to experiment with different settings, but with the resources listed above, you’ll have several opportunities to practice.
Whether you’re a new astronomy and space enthusiast or a seasoned veteran, ISS passes are a dramatic and entertaining way to connect with the world around you. By all means, don’t keep this to yourself. Share the experience by watching the ISS with neighbors, family and friends. Once you see it, you won’t look up without being reminded of the fascinating world we live in or the technological achievements of mankind.