‘Hello World’ laser message from space jazzes NASA

Frame from the ‘Hello World’ video sent on June 5, 2014 from the space station to Table Mountain using a laser instead of radio waves. Credit: NASA

Scientists are calling it the difference between dial-up and DSL. On June 5, the International Space Station passed over Table Mountain Observatory near Los Angeles, California and beamed an HD video to researchers waiting below.  Unlike normal data transmissions, which are broadcast on radio waves, this one came packaged in a beam of laser light.

“It was incredible to see this magnificent beam of light arriving from our tiny payload on the space station,” says Matt Abrahamson, who manages the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


Click to watch the ‘Hello World’ video beamed from the ISS

The 148-second movie titled ‘Hello World’, which you can watch above, demonstrated how sending data by modulating a laser signal is SO much faster than using radio waves. It took all of 3.5 seconds to transmit a single copy of the video message, which would have taken more than 10 minutes using traditional methods.

Because the space station zips around the Earth so quickly, a laser was directed from the ground to the station. Once ‘locked in’, astronauts could fire the 2.5 watt encoded laser beam in the return direction. Credit: NASA

But there was some fancy footing involved in making sure the message arrived on target from the space station. Imagine how tricky it would be to aim a narrow laser beam at a ground station while traveling at 17,500 mph (28,000 km/hr). To accomplish the feat, a laser at Table Mountain illuminated the space station while the OPALS unit sent its own 2.5 watt encoded laser signal right back in the same direction carrying the HD video.

At left: Illustration showing the 2.5 watt OPALS laser beaming video to Earth. At right, the laser beam arrives from the ISS as seen on the computer monitor at Table Mountain Observatory. Credit: NASA

There’s an enormous amount of data in space transmissions – just think of the reams of photographs – making lasers a far faster alternative to getting those data to the scientists and public who crave them.

Prepare for sleepless nights – space station marathon starts this week!

The International Space Station cuts across sky and clouds alike in this time exposure image. Starting later this week, the station will be in continuous sunlight and be visible on passes all night long. Credit: Bob King

I love watching the space station. It’s the brightest satellite and makes frequent passes. It’s also unique. Most satellites are either spent rocket stages or unmanned science and surveillance probes. The ISS is inhabited by a crew of astronauts. Real people. Every time I see that bright, moving light I think of them up there taking pictures of ‘down here’, performing experiments, cracking jokes and pondering the meaning of it all while staring out the panoramic cupola windows.

The ISS’s orbit is inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator and passes overhead for anyone living between 51.6 degrees north and 51.6 degrees south latitude. It’s visible well beyond this zone also but never passes through the zenith.

Diagram showing the Earth in late May when the space station’s orbital track is closely aligned with the day-night terminator. The astronauts see the sun 24-hours a day (midnight sun effect) while we on the ground get to watch repeated passes. Credit: Bob King

Most of the time we get one easy-to-see bright pass preceded or followed by a fainter partial pass. ‘Partials’ occur when the space station glides into Earth’s shadow and disappears from view during an appearance. But in late May-early June each year, the space station’s orbit and Earth’s day-night terminator nearly align. From the astronauts’ viewpoint, it’s the time of the midnight sun. From down on the planet between latitudes 40-55 degrees north, the ISS remains in sunlight during every single 90 minute pass.


In late May-early June near the summer solstice, the sun doesn’t set on the International Space Station

Instead of once or twice a night, we’ll see 4-5 passes starting about May 30. For instance, on May 31 from Duluth, Minn. we’re graced with four appearances at 12:12 a.m, 1:44 a.m., 3:20 a.m. and 11:23 p.m. The best nights are June 4 and 6 with five passes. By the 10th, the ISS ‘marathon’ winds down and we return to 2-3 passes a night.

The ISS always appears in the western sky first, rising up contrary to the movement of the stars, and traveling to the east. Low altitude passes put a lot of lateral distance between you and the station, making them fainter. Not by much though. Even on a low arc, the ISS shines as bright as Vega. Overhead passes means the ISS is as close as it can get – straight up at about 250 miles away. When you get one of those, the station’s only a magnitude shy of the planet Venus and absolutely stunning.

The ISS is huge – about the size of a pro football field – and consists of many separate modules linked together like a colossal Tinkertoy creation. Large solar panels power the station. Credit: NASA

If you closely watch the ISS as it moves against the starry sky, it will appear to move jerkily. This would be very bad orbital maneuvering if true. What you’re really seeing are your own jerky eye movements transposed on the sky. Some of my favorite passes are those when the space station fades from view mid-track as it passes into Earth’s shadow. I always keep binoculars handy for these passes so I can watch the station turn orange and red as it experience one of its many orbital sunsets. Try it sometime.

There are many ways to find out when the ISS will pass over your city. My favorite are the listings in Heavens-Above. Login with your city and you’ll see a complete list with links to create maps of the station’s track across the sky. There’s also Spaceweather’s Satellite Flyby tracker. Type in your zip code and hit enter. Couldn’t be easier. You can also have NASA send you an e-mail when the most favorable (highest, brightest) passes occur by adding your e-mail to the Spot the Station site. Be aware though that you won’t be notified on some of the less favorable passes.

Well, I’m going to prep for the marathon. Eat lots of pasta you know and keep a favorite beverage handy. See you in spirit on the course.

See the space station this week / Jupiter and moon a sparkling sight tonight

One of the Expedition 39 crew members aboard the International Space Station photographed a curtain of aurora hovering over blue twilight over northeastern Kazakhstan recently. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) returns this week to highlight the evening sky. Outside of Venus and the moon, the ISS is the brightest, star-like object in the nighttime sky. It orbits from west to east, the same direction the Earth rotates, and crosses the sky in about five minutes. At an altitude of about 250 miles, the station orbits above most of the auroras we see which is why astronauts get such cool photos of the northern and southern lights from orbit.

Expedition 38 photo of the Kavir Desert in Iran taken with a 200mm lens looks more like swirly water than rock formations. The lack of soil and vegetation allows the geological structure of the rocks to stand out. According to geologists, the patterns result from the gentle folding of numerous, thin, light and dark layers of rock. Later erosion by wind and water cut a flat surface across the folds exposing their internal structure. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

The new evening observing season begins for many locations across the northern hemisphere with passes happening once or twice a night. To watch the space station, go out a couple minutes before it’s expected to appear and look for a pale yellow “star” brighter than any other moving from west to east across the sky.

You might be able to also see the Progress 54 cargo craft in the coming week after it undocks with the ISS tomorrow morning and before its destructive re-entry over the Pacific Ocean on April 18. I’ll have viewing tips and times when they’re available. The departure makes way for the arrival of Progress 55 on April 9, which will deliver almost 3 tons of food, fuel and supplies.

Flight Engineer Oleg Artemyev looks at the Earth through the windows of the International Space Station’s cupola this past week. The Expedition 39 crew has been busy with biomedical research this past week focusing on how the immune system responds to living in space. Click to learn more. Credit: NASA-TV

Click HERE or HERE to find times and directions to look for your town. I’ve included a list of times when the ISS will be visible for skywatchers in the Duluth, Minn. U.S. region at the end of this article.

The half moon will be in conjunction with the brilliant planet Jupiter this evening. The map shows the sky facing southwest around 9 p.m. local time. Stellarium

While you’re waiting for the six-man crew of the station to fly over your house or apartment, don’t forget to look up at the first quarter moon in the constellation Gemini tonight. Just “three fingers” or 5 degrees above it shines Jupiter. They’ll make an eye-catching pair for sure.

The moon tonight as seen from North America. How many dark seas or lunar maria (MAH-ree-uh) can you see? Credit: Christian Legrande, Patrick Chevalley / Virtual Moon Atlas

For another easy observing project, try spotting all five of the lunar “seas” visible tonight. These largish, dark spots that form the face of the man in the moon are plains of now-solidified basaltic lavas that erupted 3-3.5 billion years ago in the basins of what were then enormous impact craters. They’re rich in iron and slightly younger than the lighter, older lunar highlands (white regions) which makes them appear darker.

Funny, isn’t it, that all that lunar tranquillity and sweetness should be marred by “crisis”, but I guess this half of the moon serves as a metaphor for life.

Space station viewing times for Duluth, Minn. region:

* Tonight Sun. April 6 starting at 8:29 p.m. Low pass across the south-southeastern sky. Max. elevation: 18 degrees (10 degrees equal one fist held at arm’s length against the sky)
* Mon. April 7 at 9:15 p.m. high across the southern sky. Brilliant pass with max. elevation of 66 degrees
* Tues. April 8 at 8:26 p.m. (high in the south at 42 degrees) and again at 10:03 p.m. across the northwestern sky. Max. elevation: 48 degrees.
* Weds. April 9 at 9:14 p.m. high in the northern sky. Max. elevation: 63 degrees

Valentine’s Day auroras and a big full moon to boot

Valentine’s Day – and particularly Valentine’s Night – will be special this year. Not only is the moon full, but auroras are in the forecast. Illustration: Bob King

High speed solar blasts that departed the sun on Feb. 11 may combine to deliver a sweet auroral bouquet Friday night. NOAA space weather forecasters predict a 25% chance of minor storms Thursday night, but that rises to 40% Friday night with a 20% chance for a major storm. We’re not talking the high Arctic here – this is the prediction for middle latitudes where we wear less sealskin and more hoodies.

The full moon rises in Leo the Lion not far from its brightest star Regulus Friday night. Click map to find what time the moon rises for your town. Stellarium

Definitely one of the happier auroral forecasts I’ve seen in a while. Friday night’s a big night with lots of Valentine’s fun happening including the Full Snow Moon. Watch for the moon to rise around sunset, cross the south meridian around midnight and set at sunrise the next morning. Might I suggest a walk in the moonlight after dinner with your sweeheart?

While we’d normally be thrilled to have a big moon in the sky, it will put a ding in any auroras that might show. I’ll keep you updated.

The International Space Station will also be making passes of a less passionate sort this week and next. Below are times for the Duluth, Minn. region. Click HERE and HERE for times for your town.

* Tonight Feb. 13 beginning at 7:32 p.m. across the northern sky. Disappears in Earth’s shadow below the North Star a couple minutes later. In binoculars, watch as the ISS fades and turns orange and then red as the sun sets on the ship 250 miles high.
* Fri. Feb. 14 at 6:43 p.m. Bright pass across the north.
* Sat. Feb. 15 at 7:32 p.m. across the north. Disappears below the North Star again.
* Sun. Feb. at 6:43 p.m. Bright pass across the north.

Moon grazes Hyades cluster tonight / Cygnus cargo ship chases space station

The moon skirts the top of the V-shaped Hyades Cluster this evening. The map shows the view in binoculars around 9 p.m. CST. The moon will pass closest to 61 and 68 Tauri. Stellarium

You like to know where your moon is, right? Tonight’s waxing gibbous moon will pass through the northern reaches of the Hyades Star Cluster. Nothing grandiose here but a pretty sight in binoculars. Bright Aldebaran, Taurus the Bull’s most luminous star, will lie about 3 degrees southeast of the moon while 61 and 68 Tauri will be only 1/2 degree away.

Come the wee hours Sunday morning, the moon’s movement eastward will put in conjunction with Aldebaran with their separation narrowing to just 2 degrees. Skywatchers living in the southern U.S. will see the moon slightly north of the position shown in the map, while those living in central Canada will see it displaced a small amount to the south.

Orbital Sciences Corp’s Antares rocket lifts off from the launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Thursday, carrying the Cygnus space cargo ship. This is the first of three delivery missions this year for the private company. Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) continues to make daily passes during morning twilight for many locations across the U.S. and Canada. Tomorrow morning astronauts on board the station will use the robotic arm to snare the Cygnus cargo ship that was launched by Orbital Sciences Corporation from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia Thursday. It’s the private firm’s first official cargo-carrying mission to the ISS.

Delays due to the frigid weather, the anticipated radiation storm from the solar flare and the “time out” to repair a radiator leak on the station delayed the mission for weeks. The ship contains the 2,780 pounds of food and supplies plus 33 miniature cubesat satellites and 23 student-designed experiments that will involve more than 9,000 students on the ground. The experiments are all in the life sciences and range from amoeba reproduction to salamanders. There’s even an ant farm on board!

The “Max” books series, including “Max Goes to the Space Station” will arrive at the space station early tomorrow morning. They’ll be read aloud by the astronauts and shared with children back on Earth. Credit: Big Kid Science/NASA

Astronauts opening up their goodies will also find copies of five storybooks about the space adventures of a dog named Max by Jeffrey Bennett. They’re part of a new educational program called “Story Time in Space” where astronauts will videotape themselves reading books about space suitable for young readers. The videos will then be posted online for parents and teachers to access for their students.

Reading a book from orbit – a lovely way to connect with the cosmos.

Astronauts will capture Cygnus with the robotic arm when it’s 30 feet from the station tomorrow morning at 5:02 a.m. CST. The two will be very close together and may require binoculars to separate. If you’re lucky enough to have a space station pass before or around that time, give it a try. Here are two sites you can check to see when the ISS passes over your town:

* Heavens Above – select your city
* Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys – type in your zip code

More information about the Cygnus mission is available HERE.

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

Mercury, Saturn meet a meager moon / Space station back at dusk


A very nice conjunction/pairing of the moon, Mercury and Saturn happens tomorrow morning Dec. 1. This map shows the sky facing southeast 45 minutes before sunrise. Stellarium

Feeling well rested? If your answer is yes, I invite you to spend some of your sleep surplus watching a wonderful celestial gathering tomorrow morning. Mercury, Saturn and a very thin crescent moon will bunch up low in the southeastern sky at mid-dawn.

The crescent, just a day and half before new, passes almost directly between the two planets some 2 degrees below Saturn and 3 degrees to the right of Mercury. To see the trio, find a place with a wide-open vista to the east-southeast and start looking about an hour before sunrise.

As always, bring binoculars to help out in case Mercury’s too low to see at first. A little bit of optical aid will also show the full outline of the moon more clearly. This dim part of the lunar globe is illuminated by sunlight reflected off Earth or earthshine.

ISS astronauts, including guitar-playing Chris Hadfield, in festive spirits last Christmas. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) got a visit this week from the Russian cargo craft Progress 53 Friday. The unmanned delivery vehicle ferried 2.9 tons of food, fuel and supplies for the station crew, including 1,763 pounds of propellant, 48 pounds of oxygen, 57 pounds of air, 925 pounds of water and 3,119 pounds of spare parts, experiment hardware and holiday gifts.

Last month, the ISS cruised the morning skies. Now it’s back in the evening for many locations and easier to see at dusk. But only for a few brief nights. I’ve listed all evening pass times for the Duluth, Minn. region below, but you can always find out when and where it flies over your house simply by dropping by Heavens-Above or typing in your zip code on Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page.

The station travels from west to east and can take anywhere from a couple minutes to 5 minutes to cross the sky depending on its angle to the horizon. A small telescope magnifying around 40x will easily show the shape of the ISS if you’re quick enough to track it.

* Tonight Nov. 30 starting at 7:35 p.m. Low, brief pass above the planet Venus in the southwestern sky. Maximum altitude: 33 degrees. One fist held at arm’s length equals 10 degrees.

* Sunday Dec. 1 at 6:46 p.m. Bright pass from southwest to southeast. Max. altitude: 42 degrees

* Monday Dec. 2 at 7:35 p.m. Very low pass across the western sky. Max. altitude: 14 degrees

* Tuesday Dec. 3 at 6:45 p.m. Travels from southwest to north-northeast. Low. Max. altitude: 32 degrees

 

‘Einstein’ takes out the trash, bids farewell to space station

TV image of the Albert Einstein cargo ship, also called ATV-4, in the process of docking with the International Space Station (ISS) on June 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/ESA

Time for Einstein to merge with the space-time continuum. The European space cargo ship dubbed Albert Einstein will undock from the International Space Station tomorrow morning (Oct. 28) at 3:59 a.m. CDT and drop back to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere over an uninhabited part of the Pacific Ocean on November 2.

An earlier cargo ship, the ATV-3 (Automated Transfer Vehicle-3), approaches the space station for docking in March 2012. Photo taken while the two craft orbited Earth’s nightside. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

The Mac truck-sized ship was launched on June 5 and docked with the station 10 days later carrying fuel, water, oxygen, food, science experiments and special treats like aubergine parmigiana and mushroom and pesto risotto selected by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano to share with his crewmates.

Cargo ship ATV-3 fires its thrusters to boost the ISS into a higher orbit last fall. Cargo ships like Einstein provide critical boosts to the station to keep it orbiting at the right altitude. Credit: NASA

In addition to serving as cargo carrier, one of Einstein’s key functions was to boost itself and the ISS to a higher orbit using its thrusters and 2580kg of propellant. Even though the space station orbits some 250 miles above Earth’s surface, it experiences resistance from the wisps of atmosphere still present at these heady heights. Without a periodic boost from cargo ships or the station’s engines, the drag on the ship would eventually lower its orbit and send it burning up in the atmosphere.

Einstein won’t be going back empty. He’ll haul out the trash on his way home, returning in a fiery demise over the Pacific packed with six tons of garbage and human waste.

For U.S. locations, the ISS continues making passes through the first half of the new week. Times for the Duluth, Minn. region are listed below. I’m hoping that one of the satellite sites will also publish predictions for Einstein’s final passes. If they become available, I’ll post them here so some of you lucky observers can spot the ship before it’s incinerated.

Screen shot from the ISS Detector app for Android. Credit: RunaR

To find times for evening ISS passes for your city, click over to Heavens Above or Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page. There are also some great phone apps available to alert you to space station fly-overs. Check out ISS Detector for Android (free) and ISS FlyOver for iPhone ($0.99).

ISS viewing times for Duluth, Minn. region:

* Tonight Oct. 27 starting at 6:47 p.m. First appears in the northwestern sky and travels across the southern sky while moving to the east. Brilliant, fine pass! Max. altitude of 51 degrees. A balled fist held at arm’s length covers 10 degrees of sky.

* Monday Oct. 28 at 7:37 p.m. Low pass in the southwest-south. Max. altitude 14 degrees.

* Tuesday Oct. 29 at 6:48 p.m. Slightly higher pass across the southwest-south. Max. altitude 22 degrees.

Mysterious cloud from Russian missile test surprises astronauts

The now not-so-mysterious cloud seen by space station astronauts over the weekend. Credit: Luca Parmitano / NASA

Friday night, Luca Parmitano looked out the window of the International Space Station and saw a very peculiar cloud hovering above the limb of the Earth. He thought it might be a rocket contrail, but with most NASA employees furloughed due to the government shutdown, no launches were scheduled. Nor were any U.S. commercial rocket launches set to go.

Luca’s photo of the wiggly contrail created by exhaust and water vapor from rocket launch. Click to enlarge. Credit: Luca Parmitano / NASA

Turns out Russia was testing its new Topol/SS-25 missile which launched on Oct. 10 from the Sary Shagan test site in Kazakhstan. According to a representative of the Strategic Rocket Forces, the test was used to confirm characteristics of the Topol missile, to test the systems of the Sary Shagan test site, and “to test new combat payload for intercontinental ballistic missiles.” The rocket has a range of 6,800 miles (11,000 km). The test was successful.

What Parmitano and the other astronauts saw was a huge cloud-like contrail left by the rocket above the atmosphere. Wish I could see stuff like that out my window.

The photo may remind you of another weird cloud connected with a failed rocket test from a Russian submarine in December 2009.

The spiral cloud above Skjervoy in northern Norway early Wednesday Dec. 9, 2009 caused by the the failure of a new Russian anti-submarine-based intercontinental missile. Fuel spewing from the spinning rocket made a dazzling spiral. Credit: AP Photo/Anita Olsen, Scanpix, Norway

After launch, the rocket developed problems and spun out of control while venting fuel in the stratosphere. Lit by the sun at dawn, Norwegians savvy enough to look skyward that morning saw a spectacular, otherwordly spiral. Click HERE to read how it all came down.

Space station returns to evening sky – how Russia and China helped us see it

Looking down on the aurora australis or southern lights from the International Space Station from about 250 miles up. Credit: NASA

I always enjoy the return of the International Space Station (ISS) to the evening sky. It’s fun to look up and know a half dozen people 250 miles up are flying at more than 17,500 mph over my house. For many locations in the northern hemisphere it’s now easy to spot the ISS at dusk as a brilliant, pale yellow “star” moving from west to east. Most passes happen during twilight and last about 5 minutes. Times and links for looking can be found at the end of this blog.

Since the station’s orbit is tilted 51.6 degrees to the Earth’s equator, it swings over the southern tip of South America (51.6 degrees south) back up to 51.6 degrees north across Canada and northern Europe. If you live north or south of 51.6 degrees latitude, no problem. While the ISS will never pass overhead from your high latitude, you can still see it well north and south of its orbital limits because it’s 250 miles high and visible far and wide.

The Hubble Space Telescope’s lower inclination orbit means it’s only visible from lower latitudes. Skywatchers in the northern U.S. don’t get to see regular passes as they do the space station. Credit: NASA

U.S. spacecraft, like the Hubble Space Telescope, are normally launched into orbits inclined 28.5 degrees, the same as Cape Canaveral’s latitude, to take advantage of the Earth’s speed of rotation. Our planet rotates fastest at the equator and slowest at the poles. When you launch a rocket it, gets a free ride in the west to east direction courtesy of our spinning planet. If you want to send a craft into an orbit with an inclination different from the latitude it was launched, you have to burn more fuel. That costs money.

The ISS overflies much of the civilized world from its highly-inclined orbit (shown in blue). The three curves show the ground tracks of multiple orbits around the Earth. As the ISS circles the planet, Earth rotates to the east, shifting each new track to the west.

So why not save money by sending the ISS into an orbit equal to Cape Canaveral’s latitude? Sure, but we’re not the only ones running the space station operation. Russia shuttles astronauts and cargo to and from the space station with its Progress and Soyuz spacecraft. The U.S. worked with Russia to pick the best orbital tilt. Since Russia launches Progress and Soyuz from Baikonur (latitude 46 degrees N), a high inclination orbit made economic sense. It also lets astronauts study more of the Earth’s surface compared to an orbit closer to the equator. 75 percent of the planet and 95 percent of its inhabited lands are open to view.

Rockets coming from the Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Russia headed for the space station are sent into orbits inclined 51.6 degrees to avoid overflying China shortly after launch. Credit: Wikipedia

OK great. So why isn’t the orbit inclined 46 degrees?  Baikonur’s not too far from the Chinese border as the rocket flies. Any booster stages falling back to Earth after launch would land in China, not the most desirable situation. Launching at the steeper trajectory of 51.6 ensures the boosters remain in Russian with the spacecraft well on its way into space when it passes over China.

With its lower inclination orbit of 28.5 degrees, the Hubble Space Telescope can’t be seen from the northern U.S. and Canada. Had we not cooperated with the Russians on ISS missions, it’s possible that the space station would have been launched into a 28.5 degree orbit and been invisible to skywatchers across large stretches of the globe. Including my town of Duluth!

I’d like to tell you what the astronauts are up to this week, but the government shutdown has shuttered most NASA websites including those connected with the space station and its status. Strangely enough, NASA’s Spotthestation site, which will e-mail you with predictions of where and when to see the ISS, is still up and running.

Below I’ve included times when the station is visible from the Duluth, Minn. region. You can always get predictions for your town from Spaceweather’s Satellite Flyby page or times and handy maps from Heavens Above.

All times CDT:

* Tonight Oct. 10 beginning at 7:30 p.m. Maximum height: 32 degrees. Appears in the south and disappears in the east.
* Fri. Oct. 11 at 8:18 p.m. Max. height: 76 degrees. Appears in the west and disappears nearly overhead
* Sat. Oct. 12 at 8:19 p.m. Max. height: 44 degrees. Appears in the west and disappears in the north.
* Sun. Oct. 14 at 7:31 p.m. Max. height: 57 degrees. Appears in the west and disappears in the northeast