Space station tries to keep its cool in Christmastime evening skies

The International Space Station orbits Earth about 250 miles overhead while traveling at 17,100 mph. The sunlit rim of the planet is seen in the background. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

Like an ornament on a tether, the International Space Station (ISS) is making passes across the evening sky now through the end of the year from many locations in the northern hemisphere. You can watch for it at dusk from almost anywhere; unlike many celestial objects, the ISS can even be seen from the downtowns of light-polluted cities.

Ground control and astronauts are working to correct a recent malfunction in one of the station’s two cooling loops responsible for dissipating the station’s excess heat. The loops circulate ammonia outside the space station through giant radiators to keep the station cool. Besides heat from electronic equipment, the ISS experiences temperatures on its hull of 200 degrees when it’s exposed to the sun.

As they figure out how to fix it, a second unit is working properly and the astronauts are safe. Mission managers have deferred the decision on whether to proceed with or postpone the launch of the Cygnus commercial cargo craft until more is known about the cooling problem. Cygnus is currently scheduled to launch Dec. 18 from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and rendezvous with the station on Dec. 21, according to NASA’s ISS website. To learn more about how the space station keeps its cool, click HERE.

Astronaut Scott Parazynski is lowered on the robotic arm of the ISS to inspect his work on repairing a damaged section in one of the solar arrays in Nov. 2007. Credit: NASA

The space station moves from west to east across the sky and takes from a couple to five minutes to make a complete pass. You might notice it has a yellowish color – that’s from sunlight reflected from its eight sets of solar panels.

Here are times for viewing the station from the Duluth, Minn. area. Type your zip code into Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page or check out Heavens Above for times for your town.

* Today Dec. 14 starting at 6:10 p.m. Bright, high pass to 66 degrees altitude after which it suddenly will fade upon entering Earth’s shadow

* Sun. Dec. 15 at 5:22 p.m. Brilliant pass straight across the top of the sky. The ISS will shine at magnitude -3.3, just one magnitude fainter than Venus

* Mon. Dec. 16 at 6:11 p.m. across the northern sky. Max. altitude: 41 degrees

* Tues. Dec. 17 at 5:22 p.m. high in the north. Max. altitude: 51 degrees

* Weds. Dec. 18 at 6:11 p.m. across the north. Max. altitude: 34 degrees

* Thurs. Dec. 19 at 5:22 p.m. across the northern sky. Max. altitude: 37 degrees

* Fri. Dec. 20 at 6:11 p.m. in the north. Max. alitude: 36 degrees

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

12 thoughts on “Space station tries to keep its cool in Christmastime evening skies

  1. Hi again Bob,

    another cloudy night, so no more Geminids. I’ll try the geminids next year or the Quadrantids. By the way do you mind making a short article about the Geminids or rather any annual meteor shower and the Draconids? I was on a school trip to London when the Draconids happened… What a show I missed. I checked out their ZHR number and when I saw it being at 324 it nearly threw me off my chair haha.

    So what I would like to know is why some meteor showers happen every year with the same number of shooting stars and others vary greatly over the years. Is it in the case of the Draconids that just all particles were used up during 2011 and 2012 so that no dust remained for 2013?
    I checked out Nasa’s java applet about the comet’s orbit: http://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/sbdb.cgi?sstr=21P;orb=1;cov=0;log=0;cad=0#orb
    I rewinded the comet a bit to 2011. G-Z was almost 2,3 AU away from earth in October 10th, so why was there such a big outburst in meteors? I mean it was I don’t know 8 years ago since G-Z came so close to the sun/earth.
    I also forwarded to 2018…. G-Z will at its minimum be only 0.308 AU away from the earth and the Earth will only be very shortly behind G-Z on 8. October 2018.
    So the dust trail should then still be very dense and thick when Earth passes through it. Does that mean we could be in for a nice meteor storm? And Nov. 19 2031 meteor storm of the Leonids :D

    • Dominik,
      I actually did do an article on this year’s Geminids at http://bit.ly/1cBqQF7 I typically write up all major showers of the year, since I’m as hopeful as you at seeing meteors from each one.
      The Draconids are tricky. Despite some recent high ZHRs, you had to be in the right time zone to see them during those very brief outbursts. I’ve watched meteor showers for years and I’ve still never seen a Draconid show. The last truly good Draconid shower was in 1946. Meteor shower rates vary because we past through different streams of dust left by the parent comet’s cyclical returns around the sun. Some streams are dense, others rarified. Despite what sound like favorable circumstances in 2018, no storm is expected because Earth will pass through a thin scree of material. Here’s a great article on upcoming Draconid showers: http://www.imo.net/docs/maslov2011.pdf

      • Thanks for the link. Pretty interesting article.
        The author was wrong about his predections of 2011 and 2012 so I’m having my hopes high that he is wrong regarding 2018 aswell. I say there will be a meteor storm haha.
        If not, so be it.
        By the way interesting photo in your article about the moon.
        When I first saw it, it looked like a daylight image to me. I’ve never seen such a bright night, even though I’ve witnessed some snowy full moon nights aswell. But they never were that bright.

  2. whats the latest on Comet ISON bob last I heard it was gone and now cnt be tracked so will the earth be hit by comet ison debris or anthing like that thanks

  3. Bob, are u sure it’s Cygnus? At the Wallops facility webpage they have it as Antares, and as of now the target launch date is the 19th, at 9:19PM. As an east-coaster i will be hoping for clear skies! caught some of the LADEE launch – awesome – but missed the last visiblie launch, which i think was another Antares, because i didn’t hear about it until later the night it happened!

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