Early Nights, Early Space Station Viewing

Astronaut Don Pettit took multiple 30-second exposures over about 15 minutes then stacked them together with imaging software to create this single time exposure showing the view out the window of the space station as it orbited the Earth. The bright lines are city lights, the white blobs are lightning flashes and the green layer, airglow. Don Pettit / NASA

We’re coming up on the earliest sunsets and longest nights of the year. And just in time, the International Space Station (ISS) has returned to evening viewing for many locations around the world. Most of the passes happen between 5:30 and 7 p.m. local time or around dinnertime, when families are often together. That and the early hour make this a perfect opportunity for children to spot the space station with a little help from their parents.

There are lots of ways to find out when and where the ISS will pass over your town. I like using Heavens Above, where all you have to do is log in, select your location and then click on the ISS link (left side of the home page) for a list of times on the 24-hour clock. Click the blue date link and a map pops open showing you its path across the sky. When the path abruptly ends, it means the station’s been eclipsed by Earth’s shadow. If you prefer to use your phone instead, download the free ISS Spotter app for iPhone or ISS Detector for Android.

If you don’t know the stars or where to look, just get the start time from Heavens Above, go outside a few minutes before, face west and wait. The space station will float up from somewhere in the western direction, whether southwest, west or northwest, and wax brighter until it becomes more brilliant than the brightest star. Keep following the moving light until it drops off in the eastern sky. The current round of evening passes continues through mid-to-late December.

Aw, come on. I want a cool shirt like that. This photo of the ISS crew was taken on Thanksgiving Day just before they ate dinner. NASA

The six-man, multi-national crew enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner this week as they orbited the Earth at an altitude of 250 miles. Their turkey day dinner came after a full day of research and maintenance work and included some traditional dishes processed for spaceflight and a special treat of lettuce grown and harvested in space.

Another time exposure, this one includes the Soyuz spacecraft in the foreground and aurora. Don Pettit / NASA

Usually, the ISS makes brief, low passes at the start of a visibility window with higher, longer and easier-to-see passes following a few days later. Here are some selected cities and the local start times for viewing the space station on Nov. 28, when passes become more favorable. During this round, there will be more passes for northern two-thirds of the U.S. than for the Deep South. The times given are good not only for these locations but also regionally:

  • New York City starting at 6:25 p.m.
  • Cleveland — 6:24 p.m.
  • Atlanta — 6:23 p.m.
  • Jackson, MS — 5:21 p.m.
  • Chicago — 5:23 p.m.
  • Minneapolis — 5:24 p.m. (low in south / southeast)
  • Duluth — 5:25 p.m. ”     “
  • Denver — 5:57 p.m.
  • Phoenix — 5:54 p.m.
  • San Francisco — 6:30 p.m.
  • Seattle — 6:31 p.m. (short pass in SW)