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How to spot an International Space Station Flyby

Updated on August 9, 2013
The ISS looking down on Earth
The ISS looking down on Earth

On September 22nd, 2011, at 6:12 am, the International Space Station will reach 71 degree maximum elevation in the skies above my house. As a budding astronomer, that's pretty exciting to me. Of course, it will top our horizon several times before that but with lower elevations, which means that it won't get as high into our sky and will be much less visible.

Some ISS Quick Facts:

  • the ISS is an internationally developed research facility that is being assembled in low earth orbit
  • the ISS will likely be in operation until 2020
  • the ISS is the size of a US football field, including the end zones, and weighs 861,804 pounds, not including visiting vehicles
  • completion of on-orbit construction should be later this year
  • with a crew of 6 astronauts and cosmonauts, the ISS has been occupied for over 10 years
  • at roughly 200 miles (322 km) from Earth, the ISS is travelling at an average speed of 17,000 mph (27,000 km/h)
  • easily seen from the Earth with the naked eye, the ISS is bright enough that it can even be seen during broad daylight


ISS path
ISS path

How can you find out when the ISS will be visible to you?

  1. Go to this link: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/realdata/sightings/index.html
  2. Choose your country from the lefthand side
  3. When you get to the list of availible sightings, look for one with the highest "MAX ELEV" and...
  4. Hope for a clear, cloud-free day/night

NOTE: NASA is just one of many websites that provide this information.


What does it all mean?

Well, I'm no pro, but I have followed these numbers and located several other orbitting satellites:

  • Time: that is the date and exact time that the satellite appears over the horizon
  • Duration: the number of minutes until the satellite reaches its maximum elevation
  • MAX ELEV: imagine that 0 degrees is at the horizon and 90 degrees is straight up. So for example, if the ISS will reach a maximum elevation of 45 degrees, that would be halfway between the horizon and straight up, giving you a good idea of where to look
  • Approach and Departure: the direction (North, South, East, West and everything in between) from which and to which the ISS will be travelling.


Tools to have onhand

For me, I've really enjoyed having my iPod Touch with me. Although it does not have an in-built compass, like the iPad, I have been able to get two fabulous apps that have helped me to locate the stars, planets and satellites that are fascinating me at the moment.

The first app is called Sky View. It cost me $1.99. When you open the app, you'll be asked to calibrate their gyroscope to what you hopefully already know is North, South, East or West. You do this by pointing the iPod straight down and then swiping your finger left or right on the screen to adjust it. Then, lift you iPod and look at the screen. Super-imposed on the view as seen through your camera's viewfinder is the universe in all its glory. The planets are all there, as well as thousands of stars, a few satellites (Hubble and the ISS included) and all the constellations. The app will tell you where they are now and where they'll be later, as well as some interesting facts like their names, locations and origines.

The second app is called Satellite Flybys. The app cost me $2.99, but all the same information is also available on their website. Simply give the app your location and it will tell you about any satellites overhead. Again, it gives precise information, like with the ISS website.

If you don't know where to look, you'll need a compass.

Binoculars are an asset too, if you don't have a good telescope, which I do not. Yeah, I'm a bit sad about that.

Happy Star-gazing!

ISS Poll

Have you seen the International Space Station?

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