I’m convinced one of the primary reasons I am such a huge space geek (or “Space Tweep“, as we’re known on Twitter) is that I am also a lover of the outdoors. One can’t spend time outdoors and not grow to appreciate and marvel at the night sky, from the glorious moon to the multitude of stars a dark sky location reveals. Camping and many other outdoor pursuits are perfect for sky watching activities such as planet and star spotting, enjoying meteor showers, and watching the International Space Station fly over as it orbits the Earth.
I would like to think I realized how special it was at the time, but one of my strongest sky watching memories is of glimpsing Halley’s Comet on a highway median on the outskirts of town in 1986 (Thanks, Mom, for hauling me and my telescope out there in the black of night!) We have awhile to wait, yet, for that sky watching experience to come around again.
A decade later, I first experienced the horizon-to-horizon majesty that is the Milky Way on a camping trip in Big Bend National Park in West Texas. It was then I realized it truly is “a sky full of stars” and we need only look up to explore. I intend not just to share memories, however, but to help you and your family create your own memories of the magnificent world above our heads.
One of the most accessible ways to experience (or rediscover) the night sky is to head outdoors any time the International Space Station (ISS) is going to pass over your location on its orbit around the Earth. The ISS is the largest artificial satellite in orbit–measuring about the size of an American football field–and when conditions are right, it can easily be observed with the naked eye even in light polluted areas (such as our backyard in San Antonio, Texas, USA.) In many cases, the Station is one of the brightest objects in the night sky, although it is visible only for periods ranging from two to five minutes depending on its orbit’s relation to the observer’s location. A pair of binoculars can make the viewing more interesting, but they are in no way required.
Many free tools are available online to help you track and locate the International Space Station and plan possible viewing opportunities, and even if I knew about them all I couldn’t begin to cover them. Thus, I’m going to share a couple of my favorites and let you explore!
Twisst ISS Alerts (via Twitter.com) — www.twisst.nl
With nothing more than a free Twitter.com account, you can follow @twisst to receive a personalized alert any time the International Space Station may be visible (weather-permitting) from your location (set in your Twitter profile.) I’ve found this to be my favorite Station-spotting tool because it’s reliable, delivered automatically to me and makes it very easy to inform others in my area about upcoming ISS flyovers. “Hey, get outside, the Station is coming over in 10 minutes!”
NASA Human Space Flight – Real Time Data — http://www.spaceflight.nasa.gov/realdata/sightings/
A lot of useful information is contained on this website, as is true of all NASA websites. Novices or those without Java support should navigate first to the “Sighting Opportunities” section of the page where you can select your country and nearest city to obtain a list of upcoming ISS passes for your viewing location (See: List of U.S. Cities, for example.) ISS passes are listed as follows:
In English, this means: “The ISS will be visible in the viewing location on (for example) Saturday, January 23rd at 6:55 PM. It will be visible for a total of 4 minutes and at its highest point in the sky, it will be 40 degrees above the local horizon. It will enter view at 11 degrees above the horizon in the North-NorthWest and it will arc across the sky, departing at 20 degrees above the horizon in the East-SouthEast.”
Also on the NASA Human Space Flight website, there’s a Java applet called SkyWatch which provides viewing and other information about numerous artificial satellites orbiting the Earth at any given time, including the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Space Shuttle when it’s on orbit.
NASA also provides information and ideas on hosting your own “star party” in conjunction with an International Space Station pass. Enjoy!
What Will the Space Station Look Like?
It’s getting late and so I’ll leave you with a couple videos. The first is one I favorited several months ago because it so superbly demonstrates what the International Space Station looks like as it passes over — Sounds from space: International Space Station (ISS) by Henk PA3GUO. Watch Henk’s video to get a good idea of what to look for if you haven’t successfully viewed the Station before or aren’t quite sure what you’ve seen in the past.
Lastly, here’s a very unsteady (handheld camera, no image stabilization) video I shot of the International Space Station as it passed over our home in San Antonio this evening (Sunday, January 24, 2010) —
My Video of an International Space Station Pass over SAT
Until next time, get outside and enjoy — day or night, there are wonders to behold!