DECEMBER 15th 2015
As I write this the UK is going space crazy, because Major Tim Peake (giving the thumbs up, above) has just become the first publicly-funded British astronaut to fly to the International Space Station. Other Brits have flown there, and into space, but Tim is the first one who hasn’t had to change nationality or take out dual citizenship to do so. He will be onboard the space station for the next 6 months, conducting experiments, taking photographs, and generally having a fantastic time.
Earlier this evening many people here in the UK were hoping to catch a glimpse of the space station as it passed over the UK, but the weather was so poor hardly anyone saw it. Disappointing, but there’ll be other chances.
In fact, many people were amazed to learn today that they can see the International Space Station in the sky, not just above Cumbria but from all across the UK, and around the world. It’s not there every night, and when it is visible it looks more impressive on some nights than on others, but at its best it is literally a stunning sight – a brilliant “star”, often the brightest thing in the sky, as bright as a lantern, sometimes even brighter than Venus, that slowly glides across the sky from west to east. It really is a stunning sight, and many people now make an effort to find out in advance when the ISS will be visible from their garden, or town, and even head out into the countryside – or just to a local park – to enjoy watching it without light pollution ruining the view. If you are one of them, you’ll already know how beautiful the ISS can look, just as you’ll know how to find out the times of “ISS passes” in advance, allowing you to plan where and when to observe it crossing the sky. (You can just scroll down this entry to the table of ISS sightings at the end, I won’t be offended!) But if you’re a newcomer to the hobby, maybe inspired by Tim’s mission to the space station, and want to see it but haven’t a clue where to start, this guide is for you.
Ok. Deep breath. here we go… First, what IS the ISS?
This is the International Space Station as seen through the window of an approaching space shuttle – back when space shuttles were flying, they’re all retired now, heading to museums…
You can see it’s nothing like the graceful, wheel-shaped space stations from science fiction films like “2001 A Space Odyssey!” That’s because a) we can’t afford to build one of those, and b) it doesn’t have to be that fancy shape. The ISS is a workplace, a high tech orbiting laboratory where astronauts live and work and do experiments in space. It doesn’t need to be pretty, it just has to work. Let’s look at it a little more closely…
You’ll see it’s made of many different parts, and has bits sticking out of it everywhere. The most obvious parts are the huge “wings” on either side are its solar arrays – they power the space station by collecting energy from the Sun. Between the solar array “wings” are lots of tubes or cylinders, all joined together, called “modules”. These are the sections the astronauts live and work in. They’re pressurised, like the inside of an airliner, so the astronauts don’t need to wear spacesuits, they just wear normal clothing. If they go outside they put on a spacesuit.
Just like a huge Mecanno model, the ISS has been built over many years, piece by piece. Those pieces have all been joined together in space, making it Mankind’s most ambitious, complicated and risky construction project ever. And you can see it crossing the night sky, like a bright star.
But how come we can see something so far away, so high above the Earth?
Well, it’s the height that’s the key – because it’s so high, hundreds of miles above our heads, the ISS is still in sunlight long after darkness has fallen down here on the ground, and that sunlight reflects off its enormous solar panel “wings”, just like sunlight glints off an airplane, or a mirror, and makes it visible to us in the night sky.
Actually, you’ve probably seen the International Space Station – we usually abbreviate it to ISS – many times already without even knowing what it was. Lots of people who are out and about after dark – driving home from work, walking the dog, meandering back from the pub – have seen the ISS drifting through the heavens, but thought it was ether just an airplane or a normal satellite. Of course, many people have also seen it and thought it was a UFO! But the truth is even more amazing – that “bright light” sailing across the starry sky is a man-made structure, a huge, incredibly complicated manned spacecraft that is home to astronauts from many different countries. The ISS is nothing less than science fiction come true – a permanently-manned outpost in space.
In recent years, as it has grown larger and larger, and brighter and brighter, “ISS-spotting” has become a great hobby among amateur astronomers and skywatchers, but you don’t need to be an astronomer – with a deep knowledge of the night sky and expensive equipment – to enjoy following the ISS as it flies through the constellations. All you need to know is what time to start looking for it. Yes, it really is that simple! All you need to do is know in advance what time you need to go outside – then you can just stand there and watch the show!
WHAT EQUIPMENT DO I NEED?
NONE! The best thing about ISS spotting is that you absolutely don’t need a telescope – in fact a telescope is pretty useless for ISS-spotting because the ISS moves, quickly, and it’s very hard to keep it in a telescope’s high magnification eyepiece. If you have a pair of binoculars tho, you should definitely try training them on the ISS – they will make it look much bigger and brighter, and enhance its colours too. ( Colours? Yes; those highly reflective solar panels are made of shiny gold material, and they give the ISS a golden hue as it crosses the sky. And when the station starts to fade, it can turn – especially in binoculars – a dark ruddy colour, and looks like a fading ember in the darkness of the night…)
Ok, so having read all that I’m sure you want to see the ISS for yourself! What exactly do you do? Here’s your guide to seeing the International Space Station.
But first, a Very Important Point. At the moment (December 2015), the planet VENUS is on view in the morning sky. It looks like a very, VERY bright “star” in the east before sunrise, and many people are mistaking it for the International Space Station, which is wrong but understandable if they haven’t seen it before. So, the most basic, most golden rule of ISS-spotting is this: remember, the space station MOVES across the sky. If what you’re looking at looks like a bright star but it isn’t moving, if it’s just hanging there in one place, then you’re absolutely, 10000% NOT looking at the space station, you’re looking at the planet Venus (or just a bright star!). And if what you’re looking at is flashing, it’s a plane. The ISS has lights on the outside, but they’re so small and faint there’s no way we can see them down here far below it.
Ok. On to business. To see the ISS you need to do the following:
1. Find out what time the ISS will rise above your local horizon (see below).
2. Go outside 5 minutes BEFORE that time to let your eyes get used to the darkness.
3. Face the WEST (ish… sometimes the ISS rises in the SW, but face roughly west and you won’t go far wrong)… and wait. Eventually you’ll see a “star” rising up from behind that western horizon, or appearing just above it. That will be the ISS! Simple as that!
4. Just watch the ISS drift across the sky, and enjoy it! Maybe even give Tim a wave, too!
Simple, isn’t it? 🙂
Well, yes, it is, really, but there are some things to bear in mind tho. Firstly, going back to #1 on our list above, the ISS isn’t visible EVERY night. There are ISS spotting “periods”, blocks of a week or so when it is clearly visible in the sky. But it’s not exclusive to the NIGHT sky: sometimes it is visible before sunrise instead of after sunset, so you’re looking for it in the very early hours instead of after dusk. ( I’m pretty sure most people watch the evening “passes” tho, because they’re more sociable than getting up at you-must-be-joking o’clock to see it…! )
I know, that sounds confusing! How are you supposed to know when to look?! Well, thankfully we can predict these “observing windows” well in advance, and there are several websites on the internet that will tell you, after you’ve entered your location, exactly when and where to look for the ISS. And now, you can use apps on Smartphones and tablets to find out the times in advance too. More on those later. But to save you time, I’m going to post that information here, on this very page. 🙂
Also, you have to bear in mind that not every “pass” of the ISS is going to be spectacular. Sometimes it flies almost flies overhead, but on other nights it only climbs slightly above our horizon. This means that sometimes the ISS is stunningly bright, so bright it can cast shadows from a dark site, but on other occasions it looks barely brighter than the bright stars in the sky beyond it.
The BEST passes to observe are the ones when the ISS is going to be high above the horizon, because that’s when it will be most fully illuminated by the Sun, and visible for several minutes.
BEST INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION VIEWING OPPORTUNITIES FOR OBSERVERS IN THE UK for the immediate future
**** Updated on DECEMBER 15th 2015 ****
The ISS is visible in the sky from Cumbria at the moment in the EVENING SKY.
Please click on the following image to bring up a full size version. Then print it out. You’ll be able to use it to follow the ISS for the next week or so!
Again, please note that those times are calculated for my viewing location, which is Kendal, in Cumbria. But if you live in the UK, wherever you are they won’t be that far off for your viewing location. Just make sure you go out 5 or so mins early, and BE PATIENT, and you WILL see the ISS! 🙂
So, that’s it, that’s all you need to get out there during the next month and see the International Space Station!
Finally, some observing tips:
* Although you can see the ISS easily from your garden, or front doorstep, if you possibly can, find somewhere dark to watch a pass from, especially one of the brightest passes, because seriously, at its best the ISS is shockingly bright, it looks like Venus skating across the sky, and if you’re out in the countryside somewhere, or even just in a local park, or in a road layby just out of town, it will look soooooo much better than it does from somewhere with houses and lights all around you.
* If you have binoculars, take a look at the ISS through them. You won’t see its solar panels, or modules, but its brightness and colours will be greatly enhanced. It’s also great fun to watch it sailing “through” the stars!
* If you have a digital camera which can take time exposures, try photographing the ISS. Just point your camera west at the predicted time of the pass and begin a time exposure of a couple of minutes. The ISS will come out on the picture as a bright “trail” arcing across the picture. You might even see some parts of the arc look brighter than others. This will be because the ISS was varying in brightness as it went over, not flashing, but just gently fading and brightening, fading and brightening…
* Don’t worry too much about those other two points! Just get out there and enjoy watching the ISS… and as you watch it sail across the sky, just remind yourself that there are people on that star… that still sends shivers up my spine when I see the ISS, even after all these years… 🙂
Finally, a word about using Apps on smartphones and tablets. A quick search for apps called something like “ISS tracker” or “Satellite tracker” or just “Space station” on the apps stores for both iOS and Android operating systems will show you there are lots to choose from. The one I recommend above all others is the “Heavens Above” app, because it is the easiest to use and most reliable. It does everything except grab you by the hand, take you outside, point up and shout “There! See????”
Ok, that’s it. Good luck, llet me know if you see it – and don’t forget to give Tim a wave! 🙂