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Here is How you can spot the International Space Station from your city

Imran Ahmed Hunzai

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Have you ever wondered about the International Space Station (ISS), one of the most sophisticated satellites that mankind has ever sent to space? Ever since its launch in 1998, this amazing human made marvel is essentially a research center that revolves around the earth at a speed of 7.6 kilometers per second or 27,600 kilometers per hour! The Space Station, better known by its abbreviation ISS, is around half a million kilograms and consists of a very complex configuration of modules known as elements. Depending on the missions, these elements are attached (docked) and detached (undocked) from the station.

By far, astronauts, cosmonauts and space tourists from 19 different nations around the world have visited the ISS. If you’re someone who has an interest in the things above the horizon, especially at night, chances are you have already done some research about the International Space Station.

Let’s look at some of the basics on how to spot space station from your very city.

1. Find a Space Station Sighting Opportunity

The first part of your mission to spot the space station is to find sighting opportunities. Unlike the moon and many satellites, the Space Station travels around the earth in a variable orbit. This means that the space station does not necessarily appear at a certain location in a repetitive manner.

Although there are tons of apps, I would recommend two key tools to spot the Earth’s only microgravity laboratory provided by NASA itself.

The first is the Spot The Station alerts tool that will send you an email alert a couple of hours before the ISS is going to appear in the sky over your city. To receive these alerts, you will simply be asked to enter your country, city, and email ID. However, the service is limited to major cities in most countries.

That’s when you can use the second tool known as the Live Space Station Tracking Map. It is a 180-minute route map, -90 minutes, and +90 minutes from the current location of the Space Station. If your city falls along the route, you can get a chance to spot the station from the roof of your home.

The alerts consist of information like date, visibility, max height and where it appears and disappears.

2. Wait for the right time

There is one big catch to spot the space station even if it is flying above your city. The International Space Station will only be visible to the naked eye an hour before sunrise and after sunset. That is why you will have to wait for the right time to spot the Space Station.

The reason for this is quite simple. When the sun sets on earth and it is still reflecting light from the ISS at an altitude of some 400 kilometers, it creates a contrast that is perfect to make the Space Station visible from earth.

International Space Station (ISS)
International Space Station (ISS) with the earth in the background.

3. Don’t miss the visibility duration

The Space Station will only be visible for less than five minutes. Since it has a speed of around 7.66 kilometers per second, you will only have anywhere between less than a minute up to five minutes to spot the Space Station before it disappears.

4. Learn from the Data

If weather is by your side, make sure to look closely at the information that NASA provides so you already have an information on where it will appear and disappear. You don’t want to rush at the last minute and go through the possible sighting information.

DateVisibleMax HeightAppearsDisappears
Thu Jan 23, 6:32 PM4 min37°12° above WNW10° above NNE

If you look at the above table, the first column shows the date, day and time when the Space Station can be spotted from your location. The second column tells you how long the Space Station will remain visible above your city.

The next three columns have something to do with basic geometry. If you remember the geometrical arc, the horizon will be 0° and if you were to draw a perpendicular line upwards, it would make 90°. If the max height is 37°, you can expect ISS to go as high as a little less than half of the 90° arc. The same rule will apply for where it will appear and disappear.

Similarly, the directions will help you understand exactly where it will appear and disappear.

To better understand the theory, you can look at the graphic below.

In this situation, the station is appearing at 10° above WSW and disappearing at 31° above NE.

That’s pretty much it about how you can spot the International Space Station (ISS) from your city. Be sure to share your experience with us in the comments section below.

Imran is a Digital Media professional and blogger based in Islamabad, Pakistan. When free, he likes to travel, do photography, and play Rabab. He also runs a HONY inspired blog called Humans of Hunza. He Tweets @imranhunzai.

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