Is it a meteor? Is it a plane? It might be the International Space Station (ISS).
Every so often, the ISS becomes visible in the night sky. To us on Earth, it looks like a bright star moving quickly above the horizon. The ISS is so bright, it can even been seen from the center of a city. Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, it disappears. How do you know when you can see the ISS in your night sky?
NASA’s Spot the Station program lets you sign up to receive alerts to let you know when the ISS will be visible from your location – anywhere in the world. You can get alerts via email or text message. Typically, alerts are sent out a few times each month when the station’s orbit is near your location. Visit the Spot the Station website here to sign up, and view a list of upcoming sighting opportunities.
If you sign up for NASA’s Spot the Station service, notices will be sent to you only when the ISS will be clearly visible from your location for at least a couple of minutes. If you live north of 51.6 degrees latitude (for example, in Alaska), you will likely have to visit the website to find sighting opportunities because notifications in this region would be rare.
The notices contain information on where to look for the ISS in the night sky. Just note where the sun sets and you can easily find the direction where the station will appear (for example, in the southwest or in the northwest). The height at which the station will appear is given in degrees. Just remember that 90 degrees is directly over your head. Any number less than 90 degrees will mean that the station will appear somewhere between the horizon and the 90 degree mark. The station is so bright that it is really hard to miss if you’re looking in the correct direction. Alternatively, you can stretch out your fist at arm’s length toward the horizon, which is equivalent to about 10 degrees. Then, just use the appropriate number of fist-lengths to find the location marker, e.g., four fist-lengths from the horizon would be equivalent to about 40 degrees.
NASA’s Spot the Station program is great. I’ve seen the station fly over many times now, and it’s a pretty amazing experience. It gets you thinking about how far our technology has advanced.
The first module of the ISS was launched into space in 1998 and the initial construction of the station took about two years to complete. Human occupation of the station began on November 2, 2000. Since that time, the ISS has been continuously occupied. The ISS serves as both an orbiting laboratory and a port for international spacecraft. The primary partnering countries involved in operating the ISS include the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia.
The ISS orbits at approximately 220 miles (350 km) above the Earth and it travels at an average speed of 17,227 miles (27,724 km) per hour. The ISS makes multiple orbits around the Earth every day.
Bottom line: Check out the ISS in the night sky the next time it flies over your location. You can sign up to receive alerts with NASA’s Spot the Station program. It’s easy, and it works!
Deanna Conners is an Environmental Scientist who holds a Ph.D. in Toxicology and an M.S. in Environmental Studies. Her interest in toxicology stems from having grown up near the Love Canal Superfund Site in New York. Her current work is to provide high-quality scientific information to the public and decision-makers and to help build cross-disciplinary partnerships that help solve environmental problems. She writes about Earth science and nature conservation for EarthSky.