Can You See the International Space Station from Earth?

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It’s fascinating to hear our Chief Space Officer, former NASA astronaut Gregory Box Johnson, talk about the Overview Effect. The Overview Effect is the impact you experience when you see the Earth from above. Almost every astronaut has talked about that affect. Looking through that little window on the International Space Station while in orbit 100 km out and you realize how incredibly small and insignificant that planet is. And how silly we are to think that our biggest problems are immigration and trade tariffs – and not global warming, conflict and pollution. 

It is also quite impressive to see the International Space Station fly above your head. Not that the sight is as spectacular as seeing the Earth. But the concept of looking up among the stars and realizing that the star you are seeing, the one that is moving pretty fast across the night sky, is actually not a star at all. It is a space ship with astronauts on board. Right on the very moment, while you are watching it to fly over you in space, 400 kms above Earth.

So, how can you see the International Space Station?

1. Of course being somewhere out of the city is a great help, somewhere where the light pollution is limited. And if it is cloudy it is impossible, so it has to be a clear sky. 

2. Secondly, it is about spotting the right star. If you have ever seen a satellite you know they just look like a star that is moving really fast across the sky. 

3. The Space Station has a trajectory which goes as far North as  51,6* and as far south of equator. It takes the Space Station 93 minutes to complete an entire orbit. This means that you can see the Space Station from majority of habituated areas on Earth. 

4. How do you know it is the space station you are seeing? Well, if you look to the West right after sunset you will see a bright star there. That is Venus (this applies to summer 2018, at the time of writing the article). From Earth, Venus and the International Space Station currently look very similar in size and brightness. Except the Space Station is moving fast across the night sky.

5. What’s the difference between seeing the Space Station and a satellite? The Space Station is brighter. It is actually the third brightest object in the night sky. It also moves slower. While you see the satellites which look like distant stars move very fast across the night sky, the Space Station moves more like an airplane. The reason is not that it actually moves slower, but that it is much further out in space than a satellite is.

Isn’t there an app for that? Of course there is. Here below you can see a widget from NASA where you can type in your nearest big city and see when the Space Nation is expected to be visible in the night sky in your region.

And if that isn’t enough, Space Nation has an astronaut training program you can participate in (Space Nation Navigator). Space Nation has partnered with Axiom Space who will provide a flight to the International Space Station for a candidate within the next 6 years. So get the app and start your training. And you just might be on the way to visit the International Space Station.