By Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
[Click any image to enlarge.]
The first components of the International Space Station (ISS) were launched in 1998 and it has been under perpetual construction ever since. Now about the size of a football field, the ISS is the largest and most expensive single space project ever undertaken by mankind.
Costing more than $100 billion, so far, it circles the planet 16 times a day at anywhere between 200 and 370 miles above the surface. With a crew of up to 10, it has been continuously occupied for the last 17 years with astronauts performing various science and educational tasks. The ISS is currently funded through 2025 by the Americans and 2024 by the Russians.
Starting in 1971 and running for 15 years, the Soviet Salyut program pioneered long-duration human space flight, followed by Skylab in 1973, Apollo-Soyuz in 1975, Mir in 1986, and finally ISS in 1998. Humans now have a longish tradition of keeping people in low earth orbit. We have learned a lot from all of this. Huge strides in communications (both ground and satellite), resource recycling (water and breathable air), on-orbit construction, and safety design/materials have been made by the scientists working on these programs. We have also learned how to keep humans not only alive but healthy while in fre efall for long periods of time. This will be crucial if we are ever to reach the planets of our solar system and beyond. I think it was money well spent.
The ISS passes overhead 15.54 times every day. It circles the globe every 92.49 minutes at a speed of 17,200 mph. You can find it yourself using the ISS Tracker website to see its real-time location in orbit. You can also take a peek out the window at the absolutely stunning view of our planet, live, 24/7 from the NASA live stream. I sometimes let this play on my TV in the bedroom when going to sleep. It is beautiful and peaceful.
As for observing the ISS, it is pretty straightforward with the naked eye. You can get a forecast of when it will be visible over your location using the NASA website called Spot the Station. Simply put in your town, click on one of the pins (if you don’t see a pin zoom out a bit) and select “View sighting opportunities” to get a table of ISS fly-overs for your location. ISS will be seen as a bright moving “star” basically anywhere in the sky, so pay close attention to the “Appears” and “Disappears” columns in the table. It will stay in the sky for just a few seconds to over 3 minutes and can stay low or climb very high into the sky. It is different each time I observe it and is just as exciting each time.
Very skilled and very clever astrophotographers can even capture shots of the station with their cameras and telescopes. I sent out a call to my astronomy friends on the internet asking for examples when I decided to write this article and within just a few minutes I got one from Tim Duke that he took in June of 2015, and another from teenager Tyler Hutchison who caught ISS speeding through the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) in June of 2017. I myself have never attempted to capture the space station with my telescope but maybe someday. See if you can spot ISS in your sky! Tell me about the experience in the comments below.
Till next time!
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!)