Space Station Flies Over A Nervous Earth

An aurora along with Venus (bright oval) and the Pleiades (upper left) accent Earth’s atmospheric glow underneath a starry sky as the glare from computer instrumentation reflects off a window in the cupola. The International Space Station was orbiting 263 miles above Kazakhstan when an Expedition 62 crew member took this photograph on March 17. Details: 28mm f/1.4 lens, ISO 4000, 2.5 second exposure. NASA

From orbit everything must look pretty much same looking down. But, oh boy, it’s not. For the next two weeks the International Space Station (ISS) will be making evening passes over much of the northern hemisphere as we on the ground learn to keep our distance from one another and hunker down. Southern hemisphere cities will see it at dawn. There are three crew members aboard the ISS, one Russian and two Americans, Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan.

When Meir and Morgan departed for orbit, six and nine months ago, respectively, the coronavirus was either unknown or not a threat. They’ll arrive on a changed planet when they return on April 17. NASA already does a careful medical check for astronauts returning from space but this time around will also follow the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommendations for coronavirus. That includes social distancing, hand washing and limited contact with crew members.

NASA astronaut and Expedition 62 Flight Engineer Jessica Meir sets up hardware to support cardiac research aboard the International Space Station. NASA

A new crew that includes NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner launches on April 9. Before a launch astronauts and cosmonauts observe the standard quarantine of two weeks that’s been in place since the early days of the space program. Astronauts live in crew quarters at their respective launch locations where they study, work out and rest. They stay in touch with family and friends through video calls. 

The space is more than anything an orbiting scientific laboratory with astronauts filling their work days conducting hundreds of experiments. The past week they’ve been looking at cardiac function and the replenishment of heart cells in space.

“The NASA heart studies could lead to a better understanding of cardiac diseases and improved drug therapies on Earth,” wrote NASA’s Mark Garcia, who pens space station blog. “Astronauts living in space for months or years at a time could see strategies to maintain healthy cardiac function on long-term missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.”

Moon, Mars and beyond? I’ll take optimism anywhere I can find it right now.

The space station (right) joins Venus and the Pleiades (above left) this evening, March 23, over Duluth, Minn. The station makes a trail becaues it moves during the 30-second time exposure. The stars and Venus also move but much less during that time. Details: 35mm lens, f/2.8, ISO 800, 30 seconds. Bob King

When you see the ISS fly over this month know that the astronauts are safe up there. The station shines by reflected sunlight and “rises” in the west, opposite the motion of the stars, and “sets” in the east. Sometimes it makes it makes its way to the eastern horizon but don’t be surprised if you see it fade away right before your eyes. That happens when it passes into Earth’s shadow and gets eclipsed. A complete horizon-to-horizon pass takes between 5-6 minutes with the station buzzing along at more than 17,000 mph.

To find out when and where to see the station, go to Heavens Above. Log in and then click the Change Your Observing Location and Other Settings link. Then click on the ISS link on the left side of the page for a 10-day list of passes. Click the pass for the current date and a map and timeline of the station’s path across the sky will pop up.

You can also go to NASA’s super-easy Spot the Station site for times and directions. Sign up to get email or text alerts whenever there’s a favorable pass over your city. Phone apps are even handier. Try ISS Spotter for iPhone or ISS Detector for Android. Both are free, provide times and directions and alert you in advance of favorable passes.

Below are times when you can see fly over my region — Duluth, Minnesota. Be well. Protect yourself and your neighbors.

Monday, March 23: Starts at 8:48 p.m. in the west, passes to the right of Venus at 8:50 p.m. and continues across the northern sky.

Tuesday, March 24: Starts 8 p.m. in the west and passes very close to Venus at 8:03 p.m. then continues across the northern sky.

Wednesday, March 25:  Starts 8:51 p.m. and crosses the northern sky.

Thursday, March 26: Starts at 8:03 p.m. and crosses the northern sky. Second pass across the north starts at 9:40 p.m. Enters Earth’s shadow at 9:43 p.m.

Friday, March 27: Starts at 8:53 p.m. and crosses the northern sky.