Space Station Blows In With The Fall Wind

A firefly flashes during an ISS pass in late July this summer. Credit: Bob King

Better grab my coat. I feel a nip in the night wind. Temperatures in the low 40s are most welcome after a warm, wet, sticky summer. Fall is often the best time to enjoy the stars — the bugs are gone, a jacket feels like a warm hug and the Milky Way arches straight overhead at nightfall. And one more good thing: the International Space Station (ISS) is back and making evening passes now through mid-October.

Evening is the easiest time to get out and watch the ISS. In fall, the sun sets early and twilight arrives in a hurry. You can eat dinner, then step out between 7 and 8:30 p.m. to catch the astronauts cruising by 250 miles overhead. According to NASA’s ISS site, it’s spring planting season on the space station. The six crew members are busy installing hardware to grow another crop of vegetables.  Understanding how plants respond to microgravity is an important step for future long-duration space missions, which will require crew members to grow their own food. Crew members report enjoying space gardening just as much as any gardener would. Growing your own food and tending a small plot of earth can be satisfying and take your mind off your troubles.

This spectacular aurora borealis over Canada was photographed by a crew member aboard the International Space Station near the highest point of its orbital path on Sept. 15, 2017. The station’s main solar arrays are seen in the left foreground. Credit: NASA

Another investigation discovered a new black hole in deep space, making me think someone should write a kid’s ABC book about all the diverse and amazing activity that happens on board that flying clubhouse. “A” for astronaut, “B” for black hole and “C” for Cupola, the multi-windowed observing station where astronauts love to hang out, relax and take photos of the Earth.

You can see it all compressed into a tiny, brilliant, yellowish star as bright as Jupiter. The space station travels in the same direction that the Earth rotates, from west to east only much faster with an orbital speed in excess of 17,000 mph. A full pass takes about 5-6 minutes unless it’s interrupted by Earth’s shadow. It lurks invisibly in the darkened sky, ready to eclipse the ISS when the time of night is right. Then, you’ll see the station rapidly fade and disappear. It’s still chugging along but inside Earth’s shadow. With binoculars, you can often follow it for a short time during eclipse. Just have them at the ready when the ISS starts to fizzle.

To find pass times, check out the following sites:

  • Heavens Above (login with your city and click the ISS link on the left for times, directions and a great map showing the satellite’s path in the sky)
  • Spaceweather flybys (just type in your zip code)
  • Grab a free app like ISS Spotter for iPhone or ISS Detector for Android and you’ll have the info at your fingertips
The ISS cuts through the bottom of the Big Dipper’s bowl last month in this time exposure photo. Credit: Bob King

Once you know when the ISS is coming, just be outside a few minutes before the pass begins. Then face west and watch for a steady, moving light to appear. If you’re lucky to get an overhead pass, the station will become exceptionally bright because it’s much closer to you (only 250 miles) compared to when you see it off in the distance.

If you watch it closely, the satellite may appear to zig and zag a bit in a herky-jerky motion. This is not happening for real in space otherwise there’d be big trouble. Instead, it’s all in our eyes which jerk along to follow the object. Happy sailing with the astronauts!

6 Responses

  1. Norris Klesman

    Big error here. “The space station travels in the same direction that the Earth rotates, from west to east”. When I got up this morning, the earth rotated east to west. At least that’s how it is here in Georgia.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Norris,
      That is not correct. Earth rotates counterclockwise as seen from above the North Pole. It does indeed rotate west to east. Its eastward motion causes the sun to appear to rise in the east.

      1. Norris Klesman

        I saw that and immediately thought of NBC News and the backwards rotating globe from years ago. Their claim was it was the view from the shuttle, but immediately corrected it after hundreds of people complained.

        I stand corrected. Thank you

  2. Troy

    The ISS gives us Earth bound observers a small taste of what it would be like to have a moon like Mars’ Phobos that revolves around Mars faster than the planet spins.
    Relating to the earlier comment, I typically notice ISS going from west to east, and typically in the northern sky (though not always in the northern sky) The high inclination of the orbit makes allows its path a variety of odd ball tracks, its closeness to Earth relegates it to twilight, though you can get some night appearances during the summer solstice.

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