Viewing the Space Shuttle and International Space Station from Earth

When you know where and when to look - it's actually pretty hard not to notice either of these two vehicles as they make their way across the sky. The only requirement is that you get away from city lights. You do not need binoculars or a telescope to view them, in fact, due to their speed - using a telescope would be quite difficult.

Knowing when and where to look is even easy thanks to NASA. Follow the url at the bottom of the page to use their Skywatch program, but first there are a few viewing tips we'd like to share with you which will make spotting them even easier.

This shows an optimal sighting for the ISS - moving eastward across the sky.
optimal sighting for the ISS

First to keep in mind is that while we are used to seeing celestial objects rising in the east and setting in the west - such isn't the case with either the shuttle of ISS, which is why it's very handy to have NASA provide the sightings times for you. Generally, the station and shuttle move from west to east across the sky, looking much like a slow moving star.

The best times to view are just after sunset or before sunrise when the vehicles are reflecting the most sunlight and are easiest to see. A few days before and after the shuttle docks with the ISS is a great time to see both of them as the shuttle will be close to the station and you may see a double pass. Currently (as of June 10/07) the shuttle is docked with the station.

NASA's Skywatch comes with a tutorial for the program but it is pretty intuitive and easy to use. Simply tell it which satellite you want to search for (there are about 327 in the database) and choose your location. Skywatch will compute sightings and come up with a table showing dates and times.

When you get your sighting results from NASA - remember you need to look at the direction and elevation given to be sure to see them. Neither will appear as a bright light rising just above the horizon.

If you choose the "next sighting" button for a satellite, you will get the next available sighting for your area and you can then use the "sky track" button to display a sky map with the constellations and the orbit path for that sighting.
ISS Orbital Track

Once you are good at spotting the station and shuttle you can try using binoculars. As the station expands in size - it is easier to spot and more details may become visible. Also if you are using binoculars you might see the shuttle dumping waste or supply water overboard. As the water is sprayed out it immediately changes into ice crystals, providing a spectacular sight glittering in sunlight.

Typically, the station will appear dim and then as it rises in elevation it will get brighter and brighter. During optimal times when it is crossing high overhead - it will shine brighter than any star in the sky. Interestingly, although the shuttle is smaller than the station - it is brighter in the sky because of its white surface colour.

NASA's Skywatch website can be found at http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/realdata/sightings/.

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