International Space Station over Earth the pale blue dot.
International Space Station over Earth the pale blue dot. Picture courtesy of NASA.
International Space Station over Earth the pale blue dot.
International Space Station over Earth the pale blue dot. Picture courtesy of NASA.

Spot the International Space Station

Here is an easy backyard adventure that I have done 3 times already. You can easily spot the International Space Station flying overhead. It looks a lot like a fast airplane except that’s a lot higher and traveling thousands of miles an hour. To be exact, the space station flies at 17,500 miles (28,000 km) per hour, and airplanes fly at about 600 miles (965 km) per hour, and a bicycle travels at about 12 miles (20 km) per hour (if you’re lucky). The Space Station is the third brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon. Nasa will send you an email with a time and place when the International Space Station (ISS) will be overhead. The timing will be down to the exact minute, so it is very easy to spot. Using a pair of binoculars that I got at Goodwill, I could even see the astronauts! (Just kidding.)

However, the space station is only visible because it reflects the light off if our Sun — the same reason we can see the Moon or any of the other planets, or even — ourselves. However, the space station isn’t bright enough to be seen during the day. It can only be seen at dawn or dusk in your location. So you may have to wait a month until it is both dusk or dawn where you live and the space station happens to be going overhead.

Wouldn’t it be fun if one of the astronauts was looking down at you, the same time you were looking up at them?

Since there are a lot of astronauts, chances are pretty good. In fact, you can see how many people are in space right now.

So, go to Nasa’s Spot the International Space Station website and enter your details.

And if you love being a backyard astronomer, it’s also really easy to spot the five brightest planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. They look a lot like stars, but their position relative to the real background of stars changes slightly every night. Downloading an app for your mobile phone like Sky Map makes finding all the planets super easy. And, if you have good binoculars you can even see the Galilean Moons circling Jupiter, first seen by Galileo Galilei in January 1610. There is a really fascinating story about these moons that I will leave it up to you to discover, but let’s just say people weren’t very happy with Galileo. And if you look really close you might see some Jupiterians. (Just kidding, I made that word up, kind of like an Earthling but someone that lives on Jupiter.)

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