Can You Spot The Station?

If you’re like the gringa, you often find yourself scanning the nighttime sky, looking at the stars and wondering how the astronauts are faring. If you know just when to look up, you may actually see the International Space Station zip by. In fact, it is the third brightest object in the sky at night! Since it reflects sunlight, which is the same reason the Moon is visible in the night sky, the ISS is visible even if the Moon hasn’t yet risen.

NASA has a program called “SpotTheStation” designed to help space fans like myself get a peek at the ISS. With thousands of opportunities and locations, surely, no matter where you are tonight, if you look in just the right spot at just the right time you should be able to see it. It looks like a plane shooting quickly across the sky. But, don’t be fooled, it is, of course, much higher than any plane and shooting through low-Earth orbit at thousands of miles per hour. And, unlike some nighttime objects, the ISS is so bright it can even be seen if you’re right smack in the middle of the city.

If casting about a star filled sky with a telescope is your idea of a good time, then you should sign up for the email notices or text messages of this program. At this time, there are over 300,000 Earthbound space fans participating in the program. The astronauts have got quite a fan base!

Depending on where you live, you could be able to see the ISS several times weekly or a couple of times monthly. Even if your city isn’t on the list, no worries! Pick the one that is closest to you. The data is good for about a fifty mile radius around each city center. Also, as the program grows, more cities are always being added to the list. In fact, if you want your town listed, just send your request to

Once you register as part of the program, you can expect to be alerted about twelve hours before the ISS passes your way. That should give you plenty of time to get ready. And don’t worry if you’re in California and getting a notice from Cape Canaveral in Florida. All notices automatically adjust for any Time Zone difference. Whatever city you register as being in, you will get a time appropriate notice for that location.

A typical notice looks something like this:

“SpotTheStation! Time:  Wed Apr 25 7:45PM, Visible: 4min, Max Height: 66 degrees, Appears: WSW, Disappears NE.”

The first time the gringa saw this she sat and scratched her head. I like visuals, pictures. Darn. These are numbers. Big sigh. Now what to do?

Well, first of all, when considering the “Time” info, keep in mind that sightings occur a few hours before or after sunrise or sunset. This is the best scenario for sun reflection lighting up the station against a dark sky.

The “Visible” info tells you how long the station will be visible before it slips back over the horizon. It’s not very long! You snooze, you lose!

“Max Height” is the elevation of the ISS above the horizon. Think of the horizon as ground zero and directly over your head is ninety degrees. To help orient you, make a fist and stretch your arm out, resting your fist on the horizon. The top of your fist is roughly at the ten degree mark.

“Appears” tells what part of the sky the ISS will first be visible. The numbers represent degrees like in the “Max Height”. The letters are abbreviations for the four cardinal points, North, South, East and West.

“Disappears” indicates the part of the sky the ISS will enter when it will no longer be visible to your field of vision.

A few things to understand that will help viewing is that the station orbits with an inclination of 51.6 degrees. That means that the ISS will never pass directly over areas north or south of 51.6 degrees latitude. It circles the same pathway around the Earth day in and day out.

When the gringa punched in her city registration data I found out that I can view the station almost every single morning through November 9, although my windows of opportunity were extremely brief making only two days realistic with six minute time windows for viewing. If you take the leap and sign up as well, don’t forget to activate your registration. Your code is only good for one hour so register when you have time to go into your email and click on the registration activation link.

I tell ya, I just love this stuff!

Source & Photo Credit:

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A barrio gringa with a dream of cosmic proportions: writing to satiate my insatiable curiosity, worldwide literacy beginning with our youth, and to be the first barrio gringa to explore outer space!

One thought on “Can You Spot The Station?”

  1. fantastic, thanks! I just checked, expecting Rome to be off-the-radar (it is in so many ways haha). All very early morning but will give a try Nov 11 which is a Saturday and after 6 am 🙂


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