NASA’s New Station-Spotting Service

If you have ever thought it would be cool to watch the International Space Station (ISS) in the sky, NASA is making it a lot easier for you to do just that. Coinciding with the 12th anniversary this week of continuous occupation of the orbiting laboratory, the space agency has launched a new website tailored specifically for skywatchers wanting to catch it flying over their backyard.

NASA has done a fine job putting together an easy-to-use online service called Spot the Station. Users in or near 4,600 cities worldwide can receive email, text or voice messages on their computers, tablets and phones alerting them to an upcoming ISS viewing opportunity.

Orbiting about 280 miles above and traveling 17,000 miles per hour, the manned satellite looks like a brilliant star gliding swiftly across the backdrop of fixed stars.  It’s also easily discernible from a passing plane because the space outpost will shine with a white, unblinking light.

The ISS is about the size of a football field and covered with shiny metal surface and lots of highly reflective solar panels, making it easily visible with the naked eye, even from city centers. If sunlight hits it at just the right angle, the orbiting structure can at times be the second brightest object in the night sky, after the Moon.  But since it only takes 2 to 4 minutes to glide across the sky, the trick is knowing when and where to head outside and look up.

That’s where Spot the Station comes in.  Just enter your country and city name, and it automatically generates a viewing timetable sent to any of your digital devices a few hours before the scheduled flyby. It’s that simple. You never have to worry about looking up any information because it’s sent directly to you

Avid skywatchers who may be more off the beaten track and not in NASA’s database—or who would like to try hunting down dozens of fainter metal space birds like the Hubble Space Telescope or maybe even space junk, like old Russian rocket boosters—should visit heavens-above.com.

While Spot the Station is definitely not the first such service to exist on the Net,  it’s nice to see NASA putting out such a handy satellite-tracking application.

So if you want to make an impression with your family and friends, check out their reaction when you can point to the night sky at exactly the right moment the International Space Station, with its astronaut crew, becomes visible over your heads.  Believe me, it never fails to impress.

Changing Planet

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.