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Spotting The International Space Station (ISS)

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by Roy Chambers (subscribe)
Lover of all things interesting and new
Published April 16th 2017
Spot the International Space Station (ISS) fly overhead
While most of us are Earth bound prisoners of gravity, we can still look up to the heavens and see the largest human-built structure in space flying up overhead. The sheer size of the International Space Station makes it clearly visible even in the middle of a city.

Photo of the International Space Station courtesy of NASA
Photo of the International Space Station courtesy of NASA


When is it visible

The International Space Station is in constant orbit around the Earth and so passes overhead at different times of the day and night. To be able to spot the space station, it has to be night where you are but the space station needs to be in sunlight, that is not in the shadow of the earth (just like the Moon).

Usually though, the International Space Station will be visible over several consecutive nights, at roughly the same time. It is easy to spot as it is the 3rd brightest object in the night sky after the Moon and Venus.

How to spot the International Space Station

Unless you want to calculate orbital trajectories yourself (and good for you, if you do), you can download a number of apps that will tell you where and when the International Space Station is visible. I have been using ISS detector but it is just one of several apps. This app will give you a warning before the space station become visible, which can be annoying when this is at 2am in the morning.

NASA also has a useful website for information on when and where to spot the space station. However, the apps are better because they will provide a plot of the path to look and give you a countdown to when it is visible and to when it vanishes again.

What you will see is a bright light in the sky tracking rapidly across the sky. It will be brighter than most stars and be moving fairly fast and steady. Even in the centre of a city, you will be able to spot it through the light pollution of urban light.

Photo of the ISS travelling across the night sky by Paul Williams @ Flickr
Photo of the ISS travelling across the night sky by Paul Williams @ Flickr


Photographing the International Space Station

Photographing the space station is fairly easy because of its brightness and the fact that you will know when and where it will be. You will need a camera with manual settings and a tripod. Just use a reasonably long exposure to get both the star field and the streak of the space station.

International Space Station Facts

16 nations cooperated to build the ISS
It circles the Earth once every 90 minutes
The ISS is over 100 metres in length
- The space inside the ISS in total is that same as the pressurised space in a 747
- Cost of construction $120 Billion, making it the most expensive object ever built
- Construction in space started in 1998

Diagram of the iSS configuration courtesy of NASA
Diagram of the iSS configuration courtesy of NASA
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Why? Spot the largest man made object in space
When: Varioius times at night
Where: In the sky above you
Cost: Free
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