NASA Offers New User-friendly Space Station Alerts

Example of a NASA space station alert. The diagram below explains the information provided. Credit: NASA

I’ve always joked with my community ed astronomy class students that one day I’d be replaced by a mobile phone app. The writing’s on the wall.

NASA recently introduced a new free service called Spot the Station that will alert you by e-mail or text message several hours before the International Space Station (ISS) is predicted to make a pass over your town.

With the information from the alert you can picture how and where the space station will appear in the sky. This diagram is based on the example alert. Credit: NASA

Just go to the website and sign up. Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, makes predictions for 4,600 locations worldwide. Don’t worry if your specific location isn’t on the list. Since the space station is visible from a large area, pick the closest town and your time will easily be within a few minutes of the correct one.

One other small caveat. NASA will only alert the “good” passes when the station reaches an altitude of 40 degrees or more. No problem there. Those are the ones most of us want to see anyway.

The ISS, big as a pro football field, is an orbiting laboratory currently occupied by six astronauts. Three of the crew is set to undock and return to Earth in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on Nov. 18, 2012. Credit: NASA

In the diagram above, based on the alert, the station first becomes easily visible 10 degrees above the west-southwest horizon at 7:45 p.m. 10 degrees is equal to one fist held vertically with the bottom touching the horizon. Maximum altitude of 66 degrees is reached a couple minutes later. Since the horizon is 0 degrees and the top of the sky is 90 degrees, 66 degrees is two-thirds of the way up from the horizon or about 6.5 fists high. Finally, the ISS remains in view for 4 minutes before disappearing in the northeastern sky.

It’s pretty slick. I even signed up to check it out. For old time’s sake, I’ll still update the blog with pass times for the Duluth, Minn. region along with interesting particulars like when the ISS disappears into Earth’s shadow or glides by a bright planet or star. Don’t forget, you can also get pass times at Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys site by keying in your zip code and great maps and times at Heavens Above.

For the Duluth, Minn. region the International Space Station (ISS) will pass directly in front of Venus tomorrow morning Nov. 12 at about 5:49 a.m. Credit: Heavens Above

A new round of passes begins tomorrow morning for North America. When you go out to watch, look for a brilliant, pale yellow star moving about as fast as a high-flying plane from west to east. The station typically takes about 5 minutes to travel from one end of the sky to the other.


* Mon. Nov. 12 beginning at 5:46 a.m. low in south-southeast. Passes right over Venus about 5:49 a.m. Be sure to watch for the thin crescent moon and Saturn low in the southeast below Venus around 6 a.m. local time. More info HERE.
* Tues. Nov. 13 at 6:32 a.m. High, brilliant pass in the south during morning twilight
* Weds. Nov. 14 at 5:43 a.m. across the south-southeast
* Thurs. Nov. 15 at 4:55 a.m. in the southeastern sky above Venus. Second pass high in the northern sky at 6:29 a.m.
* Fri. Nov. 16 at 5:41 a.m. Brilliant pass across the top of the sky. Best of the week!
* Sat. Nov. 17 at 4:54 a.m. Brief appearance in the eastern sky. Second flyby at 6:27 a.m. across the northern sky
* Sun. Nov. 18 at 5:40 a.m. across the northern sky

13 Responses

  1. Jon Dannehy

    Wish I didn’t have to work tomorrow, I always like it when it passes close a solar system object. It looks to be clear tomorrow morning here. I hope you have clear skies up there.

    1. astrobob

      Hey Jon,
      Touch and go for us for clear skies tomorrow for Duluth. I also have to work but I’m so hungry for starlight I might set the alarm. Much overcast lately.

  2. Giorgio Rizzarelli

    Just subscribed and found my city, and one can remove email alerts when he wishes. I used to check in Stellarium but this is quite quickierand precise. Thanx Bob

  3. Robert

    Hi Bob- I love watching the ISS pass over. Just to know there are people in it looking down at us. I use the satelite flyby and it is so accurate. A couple of weeks ago I looked at it through my binoculars for the first time. I know it is traveling at some 17,000 miles an hour but with the naked eye it’s a little deceiving as you watch it pass. Looking with binoculars you really get a better feel for how fast it is moving, especially tracking it as it moves past stars. Really cool! Also I don’t hear much talk about the holy Grail of all celestial events ( for me anyway ) the solar eclipse of august 21, 2012. I’ve been waiting 32 years for this.

    1. astrobob

      Great idea on the binoculars! Try watching through a telescope for a real treat. If you can “trap” it, the ISS looks like the letter H even at low magnification. I’ve been waiting nearly as long for the eclipse in 2017 as you. Finally, one many of us in the U.S., Canada and Mexico can drive to see instead flying halfway around the planet.

  4. Robert

    Thanks for the advice – I have a spot picked out near Beatrice, Nebraska to watch the eclipse clear horizon to the west, can’t wait to see the shadow moving toward me across the ground. There is going to be so much going on I may have to make an itinerary so I won’t miss anything.

    1. astrobob

      Hah – already got your spot picked – nice! I haven’t made plans yet. My spot will depend on the place most likely to be clear. Now all I need to do is stay alive till then.

  5. Robert

    I hear you, I’m trying to stay safe. The eclipse of 2024 crosses the path of eclipse 2017 just south of St. Louis. Lucky people living there. Seeing a total eclipse in a unfamiliar environment is still going to be the coolest thing I’ll ever witness but seeing one in your own town would be wild, especially since you are so use to what it’s supposed to look like your familiar surroundings would suddenly look strangely different, I can see why ancient people were so terrified by them.

Comments are closed.