Evening Space Station Passes Get Us Over Winter’s Hump

A 30-second time of exposure captures the International Space Station passing beneath the Big Dipper. Credit: Bob King

The big, bright, bodacious International Space Station is back again in the evening sky. And it’s arrived at hump-time, when we slowly transition from the core of winter to its skin. Starting this evening and continuing through mid-February, you’ll either spy the space station by accident as in “hey, what’s that really bright light moving across the sky?” or plan an outing using a mobile phone app or website to alert you to the next pass over your city.

The ISS always makes its first appearance somewhere in the western sky and travels east, taking about 5 minutes to complete a pass. When low in the sky, the space station is 250 miles high and many hundreds of miles east or west of you. But during overhead passes, it’s only about 250 miles away (no horizontal distance east-west) and so appears extremely bright. Take a close look at the color of the ISS, and you’ll probably be able to tell it’s yellow rather than pure white. This is caused by a gold-colored insulating foil on its many solar panels.

The Japanese HTV-6 resupply ship is pictured just before its release on astronaut Shane Kimbrough’s 100th day in space. Credit: @Astro_Kimbrough

Just this morning, Expedition 50 Flight Engineer Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency and Commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA commanded the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm to release the Japanese cargo vehicle called HTV-6. It was the ISS crew’s 100th day in space. As they conduct DNA research and deploy eight new neutron radiation detectors around the interior of the station, HTV-6 will be moved to a safe distance below and in front of the ISS for about a week’s worth of data gathering using a tether to measure electromagnetic forces. Japan’s space agency JAXA is scheduled to de-orbit the craft on Feb. 5. Loaded with trash, the vehicle will burn up harmlessly over the Pacific Ocean.

A nighttime view of Western Europe is captured by crew members aboard the International Space Station. England is visible in the top right of the frame, Paris appearing as the bright city near the middle of the image and views of Belgium and the Netherlands occupying the middle-right of frame. Credit: NASA

That means we might get to see HTV-6 in the coming week tracking ahead of the space station, a smaller light compared to the much brighter ISS. Based on the times I’m seeing at the Heavens Above satellite prediction site, the cargo ship will make passes on a similar track as the ISS about 20-35 minutes in advance of the ISS. To find out when either or both will be visible from your location, head over to Heavens Above, login, pick a city and then click the ISS link in the column on the left side of the page for times, brightness and a map showing the station’s path across the sky.

You can do the same for HTV-6, but you’ll have to manually input the name. Click the Satellite Database link on the homepage, delete the star in the box and type in HTV-6. Hit enter and then click the Visible Passes link. That’s all there is to it.

I’ll be looking forward to seeing them both once the clouds clear outta here. Can you already tell the sun’s setting later in the evening? Clear skies!