Space Station Brightens December Nights, Celebrates 20 Years

The Russian Progress cargo spacecraft launch as seen from the International Space Station on Nov. 16, 2018 (see timetable below for a blow-by-blow of what to look for).

Now through mid-December northern hemisphere skywatchers can catch the International Space Station (ISS) boogie across the sky during evening twilight. Passes occur between about 5 and 7 p.m. local time, making it easy to spot it around dinnertime. Southern hemisphere observers will see it in the dawn hours.

Humble beginnings. This is the first module, called Zarya, launched in 1998, that formed part of the core of what would become the International Space Station. NASA

The ISS first appears in the western sky and tracks east. When it’s low in the sky, it appears fainter because we see it from further off, but it brightens as it climbs in altitude and closes in. The space station orbits about 250 miles (400 km) high, travels at 17,150 mph (7.6 km/sec) and has been cycling over our heads for 20 years now.

All its parts, pieces and modules had to be brought up from Earth and assembled in orbit, an amazing feat that took 40 missions to complete. The station is expected to stay in use through 2024 and possibly 2028 before it will either have to been refurbished or repurposed. Its components, the solar arrays which provide power, have only a limited lifetime. Solar ultraviolet light and nasty oxygen ions in Earth’s upper atmosphere cause cumulative damage to the arrays.

On Nov. 20, 1998, the Zarya Functional Cargo Block launched from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome to serve as a temporary control module for what would become the International Space Station. This October 2018 photo shows the station today, fully complete. NASA

Take a close look at the video above made by astronaut Alexander Gerst on Nov. 16.  It captures the launch and separation of the Russian Progress MS-10 cargo ship recently launched to the space station from what can only be described as a unique perspective — the space station itself. The time lapse compresses what would normally take about 15 minutes into a minute and a half. To help you spot all the cool stuff going on, here’s a checklist:

0:05 (lower left part of frame) — Launch Progress spacecraft and Soyuz rocket booster separation
0:20 (upper right) — Second stage, called the core stage, separates and creates a cloud of exhaust
0:34 (just right of center) — The core stage starts to burn up in the atmosphere. It looks like a star at first.
0:34 (upper right) — Progress spacecraft separates from its rocket and begins to enter orbit
0:38 (just below center) — Core stage becomes a brilliant fireball!
0:38 to end (upper right) — Progress in orbit on approach to the space station. It looks like a star stuck in one spot as the real stars appear move by.

Run it through a few times. A lot happens in just a few seconds!

Back on the ground, you can find times to see the ISS pass over your neighborhood at the following sites:

  • Heavens Above: Log in and set your location then just click the ISS link in the left-side column to get a list of passes. Times are shown on the 24-hour clock, “Alt” stands for altitude and “Az” for azimuth or compass direction. North is 0°, east 90°, south 180° and west 270°. Click the date link for a map showing its path across the sky during that pass.
  • Spot the Station: Type in the name of your town, then click it on the map, then click the fat blue “paddle” to find a list of viewing times and what direction to look.
  • ISS Detector for Android: Free app for finding and tracking the ISS on your phone.
  • ISS Spotter for iPhone: Same for iPhones.

5 Responses

  1. Edward M. Boll

    I love to watch the space station pass. I still have not looked for Wirtanen yet. There is still time to catch Swift Gehrels with a small scope before it fades away.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Edward,
      I caught Swift-Gehrels a week ago. Nice large coma and mag. 10 but diffuse. Dark skies this week for Wirtanen!

  2. Sheila B

    Any suggestions for watching the Mars lander on 11/26. Website recommendations? Also wondering what time to tune in to follow the coverage live in our timezone.

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