A delightful way to spend time with your family and friends and amaze them with your knowledge of science is to head outside on a clear evening and watch the International Space Station (ISS) fly overhead. At some point most of us have looked up in the sky on a clear night to admire the stars and catch a glimpse of a plane flying by, but you may not have realized that the bright object flying high overhead may not have been a plane but rather, the International Space Station!
So, how is it possible to see the International Space Station? Well, the answer is that the ISS flies high overhead at approximately 235 miles (378 km) and this is so high that after sunset and before sunrise when we are still enveloped in darkness on earth, the ISS is bathed in the rays from the sun. And since the ISS is roughly the size of an American football field, there is a lot of surface to reflect the sun and which allows us to see it.
Now, how do I know what I am seeing is actually the ISS? Well, the space station will probably be the brightest object in the sky and it may look like a plane, but it has no flashing lights, it stays a bright white the entire time you see it, and it is moving wicked fast! And when we say fast we mean that it is traveling at 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 km per hour) which will get you to Grandma’s house in no time – LOL.
But, the best way to confirm that you are actually seeing the ISS is to go to NASA.gov and let them tell you when the ISS is flying over your neighborhood. When you visit http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/ you can enter your location and you will be given a list of times that the ISS will be visible from where you live. But, better yet, sign up for their alerts and you will receive an email on when the ISS will be visible.
The ISS is not always visible every evening or morning so the email alerts are very helpful in letting you know when you have an opportunity to see the space station. If you do sign up for the alerts you will receive an email that says something like:
Time: Fri Jan 22 5:50 AM, Visible: 1 min, Max Height: 40°, Appears: 40° above E, Disappears: 22° above ESE
The key item to look for is how long it is Visible. The station is usually Visible from 1 to 6 minutes. From experience, your best chance of finding the ISS in the sky is when the Visibility is 4 to 6 minutes. Sometimes it take 3 minutes just to find it, so anything less than 4 minutes gives you a smaller chance of seeing it.
So now, when the opportunity presents itself, head outside with your family and friends and Live a Memory by showing them the International Space Station!