That's No Moon, It's a Space Station!
If you paid attention to the news in January 2013, you read the White House's awesome reply to the petition to build a Death Star.
It mentions that we already have an enormous space station which, while it can't vaporize passing planets, is helping with breakthroughs in medicine, in plant cultivation, and in problems of human spaceflight (bone/muscle/vision loss, solar radiation, the breakdown of drugs) that we need to solve before we send astronauts to Mars.
The White House linked to NASA's Spot the Space Station page. There you can sign up for email or text message alerts notifying you of upcoming ISS flyovers in your area. (Note: ISS viewing opportunities are often days or weeks apart.)
But maybe you don't want to sign up with NASA for text/email alerts. Or, maybe, like me, knowing when to look up for the space station is only half the problem; you also need to know where to look to spot it!
Below, I'm going to recommend two great apps that I use to spot the International Space Station. But first, just in case you don't have a tablet/smartphone, here's a free website that will give you an ISS sightings timetable and sky chart.
(Just for fun: Cool Vimeo video on the ISS)
ISS Sighting Sky Chart for 2/8/2013
Heavens Above is a free website that gives you up-to-date sky charts and timetables for sightings of the International Space Station, the planets, and various human-made satellites.
You must tell the website your location under the "Configuration" section. Try "select from database," which lets you search to see if it's already got you city/town's location. You'll have to configure your location every time you use the site, or else you can "Create new user account" which will save this information.
Once it knows where you are, then Heavens Above can give you predictions and a sky chart for your location. Here's what to do.
- Under "Configuration" on the main page, make sure it lists your location as the "Current Observing site." If it doesn't, log in or select your location.
- Under "Satellites," click the 10-day prediction for ISS link.
- Now you get a table of when the ISS will be visible in your sky at night.
- Look at the "Alt" column -- that's altitude. 90 degrees means straight overhead (which it almost never is); 70-90 is great. I wouldn't bother with 30 degrees or less, unless you live in a desert or clear sky area, because that's so close to the horizon that city lights, haze, and clouds tend to hide it.
- The times are given in local times in your area (assuming you've configured your location), but they're on a 24-hour clock, so, for example, 14:00 means 2PM (12 noon plus two hours).
- For a sky chart of each sighting, click on the DATE of that sighting. That will take you to a map of the night sky showing you the space station's exact path.
- Print out the chart, or, if you have a smartphone/tablet, be sure to do all this about an hour before the ISS appears so you'll have the chart ready in a browser tab.
- If you're not familiar with sky charts, go out at the same time on the night before and use the sky chart to help you identify obvious constellations so you can figure out in advance where the ISS will be. Hopefully, Cassiopeia (the big "W"), Orion, the Big Dipper, or a bright planet like Jupiter will be up so that you have something to lock onto. Notice that the sky chart marks the points of the compass — north, west, south, east — for reference.
- Constellations move a little each night, so be outside and ready fifteen minutes before the ISS rises, and use the sky chart to orient yourself and determine where the ISS will rise.
- Keep an eye on the clock, and look for a very bright white light moving sloooowly up from the horizon, passing overhead and sinking back down over the course of a minute!
This works, but the website is a little intimidating, with its black and white sky charts and timetables. Unsurprisingly, there's an app for that -- actually two -- which make it a cinch to know when the ISS will be in your area and where to look.
"ISS Spotter" Panes
"ISS Spotter" Free App
When can I see the international space station?
Here's what I use to find out: the free ISS Spotter app!
This app draws on the info sent out by NASA but untangles it into a schedule you can understand.
In the "Forecast" pane, you can check for upcoming space station viewing opportunities, set "Smart Alarms" that notify you in advance of good sightings when the ISS is high overhead.
WARNING: the alarm goes off about a minute before you need to be outside looking up! I set another alarm about an hour earlier to remind me.
The star rating system gives you a general idea how good (how high) the sighting will be. The degrees means degrees from horizon at the top of that flyover's path. 90 degrees means straight overhead, which it almost never is; 70 degrees and up is what you hope for. If the top of the arc is below 30 degrees, that means the ISS is going to stay low to the horizon, where it may be obscured by light pollution, haze or clouds.
The ISS Spotter app tells you when, but where do you look?
ISS on Night Sky App
Where can I see the International Space Station?
NightSky shows you what constellations, planets, and stars are overhead (or even hidden by the Earth). Just aim the iPad at a part of the sky, and it shows what's in that direction.
The International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope are both indicated by large red "space station" icons. The name of the object only appears when you have it centered on the screen, so you may need to spread your fingers to zoom in on it.
The smaller icons are thousands of communications satellites, spy satellites, spent rockets, etc.
If you are not seeing the ISS, Hubble, and thousands of satellite icons, tap at upper left and click the third icon from the left, the satellite icon, to show all satellites and large Earth-orbiting space junk.
Once again, I recommend going outside about fifteen minutes abead of time and turning around slowly until you locate the ISS' current location (which will be below the horizon.) Also practice matching a bright star or planet you see on the screen with the actual sky. The ISS will be as bright as Venus, but you still need to know where in the sky to look for it!
Update: tonight (Feb 8), patchy clouds obscured the stars and nearly everything but Jupiter, but with NightSky, I knew exactly where to look. Below is a video I captured with the iPad (apologies for poor video quality). Below that is another YouTube member's video of another ISS sighting with a better camera.
My Vid of ISS Flyover
Someone else's with better camera
What Have ISS Scientists Discovered?
- Space Shuttle Spinoffs / Benefits
The International Space Station is brand new: the last shuttle flight finished putting it together. Here's some of the benefits we enjoy on Earth from space shuttle research. Expect more discoveries and breakthroughs like this from ISS research!
- NASA - ISS Research and Technology
Here's NASA's homepage on current research aboard the ISS. Don't be shy about checking out the "for kids" section -- scientists tend to be a little technical for most of us.
What THEY See: Amazing Video from International Space Station
Paul on November 10, 2013:
I have seen many views of earth from the ISS, but I never grow tired of seeing them. Nice to see someone also interested in that.
Edmund Custers on June 06, 2013:
Great view of earth from the ISS in the last video. Did you see all those lights? We need to turn off some.
Thanks for sharing this with us! I will take a look tomorrow if I can spot the ISS.
Ellen (author) from California on February 09, 2013:
It's been raining here for days, but the clouds parted JUUUST enough for me to see it last night... and thank goodness for NightSky; with patchy clouds in the way all I could see was Jupiter, but I knew just where to look to see the ISS coming up out of the trees!
You're right, this would be fun for a party! (In fact the first time I did it was in December, visiting my parents in Utah where they had clear skies. We went out in the snow to watch it fly over, while sipping hot cider or cocoa.)
Russ Moran - The Write Stuff from Long Island, New York on February 09, 2013:
I saw it once, on a clear summer night in Park City Utah. A friend pointed it out. Thanks so much for showing us how to plan viewing it. What a great way to liven up an outdoor party! Voted up0 useful and interesting. Russ
Eric Dockett from USA on February 08, 2013:
I did see the response to that Death Star petition, and I thought the government's reasoning was flimsy at best. Bah! In any event, I always seem to fail and finding things in sky when they are supposed to be up there, so your Hub is very helpful.