October 27, 2021

Watch the ISS Pass Overhead – It’s Better than TV

Katie and Gene Hamilton

Bring Binocular News

See the International Space Station just outside your window as it passes overhead

The International Space Station, known as ISS, passes overhead about 16 times a day.  Since it will pass over thousands of worldwide locations, one of its passes is sure to be close to where you live. We enjoy watching the ISS whenever it passes over our home on the eastern shore of Maryland. Several neighbors often join us intrigued by this amazing sight.NASA tells us the space station is visible because it reflects the light of the sun. But the space station isn’t bright enough to see during the day. To track the International Space Station it has to be both dark where you are and the space station has to be overhead. Sighting opportunities can range from one sighting a month to several a week. Here’s what to know about watching the International Space Station and connecting with Spot the Station and knowing the schedule.

The International Space Station also known as the ISS

What does it look like? It appears as a very fast moving star.

Get connected with the ISS schedule

Below is an example of a flyover alert that we recently received:

Time: Mon Oct 04 7:50 PM, Visible: 5 min, Max Height: 60°, Appears: 10° above NW, Disappears: 33° above ESE

Translated that means on October 4 between 7:50 p.m. and 7:55 p.m. you will see a fast moving bright object. The spacecraft reflects sunlight while it passes overhead. If the alert says it’s visible for 5 minutes then you’ll see it as it passes across the sky from the northwest to the east southeast for 5 minutes. We use binoculars to get the best view.

Use your mobile phone and your SMS address to send and receive text messages. Your 10-digit mobile phone number followed by the email address of your mobile carrier is your SMS address.  Here’s the suggestion NASA gives: “For example, an AT&T SMS address would be12345678910@text.att.net. “They suggest checking with your individual carrier for their format.

How do we know when to look for it? Easy.  You can sign up with your email address at SpotTheStation.nasa.gov to get on their mailing list and they will send you information when to watch as the ISS passes over your area.

How come you may not be able to watch the ISS pass overhead?

The station passes overhead many times during the 24 hour day, but you can watch it pass overhead only when it’s visible in the morning or evening and when it passes high in the sky. So when the predicted passing has a short duration and low maximum height the station will be hard to spot.   

TIP: We use a compass to confirm the direction the spacecraft is coming from. And we use the old fist over fist technique to approximate it’s height above the horizon. Once you spot it with your naked eyes you have a better chance of viewing it with binoculars. You can’t see details like the solar arrays, or individual modules, but you will have a very clear view of it.


What’s the ISS doing up there?

The space station is a microgravity lab for science and technology research and experiments conducted by crew members from the U.S., the European space agency, Russia and others countries. It acts as a testbed and allows us to study the impacts on humans undergoing long term space flights.

Astronauts work as the ISS passes overhead
Astronauts Kate Rubins and Jeff Williams prepare for a spacewalk

For example, SpaceX and the UK Space Agency recently sent an experiment with hundreds of earth worms to the ISS to better understand muscle loss in humans during space flight. The molecular structure of worms is like that in humans and they are small, quick to grow and easy to maintain. So they are well suited for lab study. This Molecular Muscle Experiment may help scientists understand the problems of muscle loss during spaceflight.


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Gene and Katie Hamilton are amateur astronomers who follow the stars and write about their dark sky adventures. They are members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
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