We’re between meteor showers, but skywatchers can still see something special if they gaze into the heavens at night. The International Space Station is visible nightly and appears as a bright star moving quickly across the horizon. But it’s fleeting, so how can you know when it’s directly over your area?
NASA has a great tool, Spot the Station, that will send text or email alerts when ISS is visible, no matter where you are on Earth. The alert includes a map-based feature to track when and where to look for the station as it flies overhead.
The alerts typically go out a few times a month letting subscribers know when to look overhead. The window of opportunity is small — in some places, you’ll see it only for a couple of minutes, and it may be visible anywhere from once a month to several times a week.
If you don’t know, the International Space Station has been orbiting the Earth since 1998, when its first module was launched, and since 2000 has hosted a rotating international crew from the 16 nations that cooperated in the construction of a permanent human outpost in space. Astronauts are shuttled to the microgravity laboratory by U.S. and Russian spacecraft, and typically spend about six-month stints living and working in space.
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Speaking of getting the crew to the space lab, there was some drama Thursday when a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying a new U.S.-Russian crew to the space station failed during its ascent, sending the crew capsule back toward Earth in a ballistic re-entry, NASA officials said. NASA astronaut Nick Hague, Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and crew members are all in good condition. They were to have joined a three-person crew already on board the space station.
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You can’t see the International Space Station during the day, but it becomes visible at night when it reflects the light of the sun. So, to see it, skies must be dark and the ISS must happen to be going overhead.
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If you live in Alaska or other northern latitudes, go to Spot the Station on the NASA website to see when you’re likely to see the orbiting science laboratory. You can sign up for the alerts there, too.
OK, the space station doesn’t produce fireballs and leave trails. But it’s still pretty darned cool, offering not only a glimpse at the future when NASA begins to explore other worlds, but also benefits life on Earth. Looking for the space station with your kids is a great chance to breathe life into science — an area where we Earthlings in this corner of the world lag behind other countries.
Check out the space station activity guide for things you can do with your kids when the space station is overhead.
Photo of Astronaut James H. Newman via NASA