Friday, June 6, 2014

Viewing the International Space Station (ISS)

A few nights ago I was lying out on the parking lot behind my house, when a woman walked by.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Oh, yes, I’m just looking for the space station.”

“The what?”

“The International Space Station.  It should be coming by any minute now.”

“Oka-ay.  I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”

“Oh yes, I’m perfectly fine.  I do this all the time.”

Somehow I’m afraid she didn’t believe me.  I think she had visions of someone waiting for a space ship to come and beam them up for an alien encounter.

A couple of nights later I had three friends out there with me.  This time we had lawn chairs, bug spray and everything.  I kept hoping that same lady would walk by.  We could have come up with a great story!

It may seem crazy, but there’s just something about watching that bright speck speeding across the night sky.  It’s usually the brightest thing in the night sky, except for the moon (and those ubiquitous airplanes).  And I can’t resist the urge to wave at the astronauts in “outer space.”

Viewing the International Space Station (ISS) isn’t as mysterious or difficult as you might think.  All you need is a clear night and an unobstructed view of the sky.  You do not need to go out in the country.  I’ve seen the ISS from a brightly lit downtown parking lot. Of course it helps to know exactly when and where to look.

I use the site Heavens Above. It’s very important to enter your location at the website. If you do not put in your observing location, the website defaults to Greenwich, England.  Just click on Change your Observing Location, put in the correct spot, scroll to the bottom and make sure the time zone is correct, and then click Update. You can also register, so it keeps your location. I registered (it’s free), so I’m always logged in.

After you click Update, you should be back to the home page.  Click on ISS.  You will get a list of the upcoming visible passes. Sometimes there aren’t any upcoming visible passes in your area.  Other times there will be several a day.  Click on the date to see all the information.

The map may seem a little strange, but keep in mind that it's meant to be observed lying down and holding it above you.  If you look at it that way, it makes perfect sense.

Pay special attention to the Brightness.  The LOWER the number, the brighter it will be.  I prefer to watch when it is below zero. 

Lie down about five minutes before the start time to allow your eyes to get used to the dark.  Then fix your gaze on the area of the sky indicated.  The ISS always travels from west to east, but sometimes it is directly overhead, while other times it will be closer to the horizon.  You will probably not see the ISS rise above the horizon.  Rather it will gradually become visible during the pass.  Look for a very bright star moving across the sky.  It’s always exciting the first time you see it.

Another website that is helpful is Spot the Station. Run by NASA, this site also gives viewing times, and you can even sign up to get emails whenever the ISS is visible in your area.  However, I find that it isn’t as reliable as Heavens Above.

Nope, there will not be any alien abductions, but it’s still fun to spot an actual spaceship!

Happy sky gazing!