At the moment there’s a picture being Shared amongst UK Facebook members more than a photo of a sleepy kitten curled up in front of a fire with a Santa hat on. It’s this one, you have probably seen it…
So, the idea behind this is to show your kids the International Space Station (if you’re not sure what that is, it’s a very large manned spacecraft orbiting high above the Earth, crewed by international astronauts who carry out experiments and observe the Earth as they orbit the planet at around 17,000 miles per hour… we can see it because at its great height it’s still bathed in sunlight long after the Sun has set for us, so we can see it gliding across the sky sometimes, looking like a bright “star”. You’ll find lots more info about it on here on my blog, there’s a Tab at the top of the page, see?) flying over, and tell them that it’s actually Santa flying over instead. Now, some might sniff at that idea, but I think it’s brilliant! I’m all for that. I mean, come on, what could be more magical than taking your already-excited youngsters out into the garden, and showing them Santa flying across the sky at the start of his epic round-the-world journey? I’ve done it before and trust me, it works.
Only one problem – because it was actually written a couple of years ago, and is now just being Shared blindly by people who don’t realise how things work “up there”, the time given on the meme is COMPLETELY wrong, so if you take the its well-meaning advice and take your trusting younglings outside at 6pm there’ll be nothing to see: the ISS will already have been and gone. You won’t be spreading “a little magic” at all; staring at the empty sky, your kids will be crushingly disappointed and you will look, and feel, like an idiot for letting them down. They might never forgive you. And if they do, they’ll cruelly remind you of “that Christmas Eve you were going to show us Santa and he never appeared” for years to come.
But the good news is that the ISS *will* be visible on Christmas Eve from the UK (and elsewhere, but this is a post for UK folks, so if you live in the US or somewhere in Europe you’ll need to find out your own local ISS flyover time, sorry. But it’s not difficult, just go to the Heavens Above website, enter your location, and away you go) so you will be able to spread a little festive magic after all. 🙂
So what time WILL it be visible? Around 5.20pm.
Ok, here’s what you do. First of all, wrap yourself and your little ‘uns up VERY warmly, cos you’re going to be outside for a good few minutes. Gloves, hats, the works. Then you need to be heading outside at around 5.15pm, no later. Actually, what time you go out depends on where you live. If you live in the countryside, or somewhere with no buildings or trees etc on the horizon around you, where you have a good view of the sky, 5.15 is fine. But if you live in the middle of an estate, or on a busy street, with lots of houses, buildings and trees all around you, blocking out the night sky, you’ll need to head out earlier and find somewhere better to observe from – a park, a road just out of town, a school playing field, something like that. In fact, if the sky is clear where you live on Christmas Eve, it really might be worth piling into the car as a family and heading out of town to somewhere dark with a good view of the sky, just to get the whole experience. Anyway, have a think about it, you’ve plenty of time to plan.
Once you’re settled somewhere suitable at 5.15, you want to make sure you’re looking in the right direction. Basically you want to be looking to the west to watch the space station / Santa appear. But which way is west? Well, if you’ve noticed where the Sun sets at the moment, that‘s roughly west. Well, close enough. But if you don’t pay any attention to the sky (and most people don’t, don’t worry, I’m not judging!) then there’s an easy guide in the sky on Christmas Eve to help you – the Moon.
After sunset on Christmas Eve a very thin crescent Moon will be shining just above the south western horizon…
( Look closely and you’ll see a reddish “star” to its left – this is actually the planet Mars. 🙂 )
Why is the Moon useful? Because Santa / the space station is going to rise up into the sky just to its right. So, once you’ve found the Moon you’re good to go. All you have to do then is wait…
…and around 5.20 you will see a “star” rising up from the horizon to the right of the Moon. You don’t need a telescope, or even a pair of binoculars, it will be clearly visible to your naked eye. It won’t be flashing either (anything flashing you see is a plane) and it won’t be unusually bright, it will just be a star, climbing up slowly from behind whatever lies in that direction on your horizon. But that’s it, that’s what you’re looking for.
And slowly it will get higher, and brighter, and start to arc over to the left, towards the Moon, heading east. Eventually it will start to drop down towards the other horizon, fading, and will then just vanish from view.
Now, how high it will get in your sky, and how bright it will appear, will depend on whereabouts you live in the UK. The further south you live, the higher and brighter it will be. Farther north, it will be lower and fainter. But if the sky is clear at 5.20 you WILL see the ISS start to cross the sky, and you will be able to tell your kids it’s actually Santa. Which will be amazing for them, won’t it? You’ll be their hero or heroine for life!
( Of course, this will only work for very young kids, the ones who still believe in Santa. I wouldn’t try it on older kids, they won’t believe you. Your moody teenager will just roll their eyes and go inside convinced you’re even more of a loser than they already thought. )
But if you have a kid who is too old for the Santa thing now, but getting interested in science, why not take them outside after tea on Christmas Eve and show them this? How cool will they think it is to be able to see a real space ship, with real people inside it, in the sky? You could then go online with them and show them the beautiful images taken from the space station by its crews. They’ve even managed to take some gorgeous shots of the UK which don’t show it covered in cloud…!
So, there you go, that’s when, and how, to show your kids something amazing in the sky on Christmas Eve. Tell them it’s Santa, or the space station, that’s entirely up to you. But show them. 🙂
Finally… just be aware that the times of ISS flyovers can change a little, they’re not set entirely in stone, so just to be sure you don’t miss it, check back here on Christmas Eve and I’ll post the most up to date time available, ok?
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