Have you seen the I.S.S. race across the sky?The International Space Station is the brightest and fastest moving ‘star’ above

Posted: September 17, 2013 in International Space Station, Space
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Captain Rick: The International Space Station is the brightest, fastest moving object in the sky just before dawn or after sunset for those in the perfect, ever-changing location. The ISS, the size of a football field, is the largest structure in earth orbit. The ISS is orbiting about 250 miles up and traveling at a speed of over 17,000 mph. It travels from the western to eastern horizon in less than 10 minutes. It appears to move faster than a commercial plane at cruising altitude and brighter than any star. Its an awesome spectacle that can be observed by almost anyone on earth at the right time.

The ISS revolves around the earth every 93 minutes. It makes 15 revolutions per day. Each pass moves about 1500 miles to the west, due to earths eastward rotation.  Its path follows a sine wave on a ‘flat map’, as shown below, because its orbit is skewed at an angle with reference to earth’s equator. This allows the ISS to fly over areas between 52 degrees latitude north or south of the equator, making it accessible from Russian launch sites, which are farther north than those in the US.


View the ISS: To view the ISS, it must pass over your area about 1 hour before sunrise or 1 hour after sunset, so that the sun’s rays illuminate it against a dark night sky. Most places on earth will experience one or more good viewings of the ISS each month. The best view of the ISS happens when it passes directly overhead (its closest encounter), during the pre-sunrise/post-sunset window. This is rare occurrence for any given spot on earth…so when it happens in your area, you must be prepared.

Captain Rick’s eyewitness sighting: I witnessed the ISS race over Gilbert, Arizona at 4:48 AM a few days ago. It was the first time I had ever seen it. I was amazed by its speed and brightness. It out-raced and out-shined anything in the sky. The ISS is indeed an experience that everyone should witness.  It only spends a few minutes traveling from one horizon to the other. I caution…to see it, you have to be prepared with its timing and trajectory. I have provided some great tools to help you capture a glimpse of the ISS as it streaks over your area…

Track the ISS as it orbits earth, as seen in the image above: http://www.isstracker.com/

When will the ISS pass over your area?  NASA has the answer. You can sign up for email alerts: http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/#.Ujen9Ojn-cx

Captain Rick presents sighting info and updates in comments below: Check out the comment feed below for great ISS sighting information and eyewitness reports from ISS viewers and yours truly…

I welcome your comments, likes, shares and following of my blog! (If not visible, click the red title above)

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  1. Ken Bosch says:

    Great report Rick, Its a sight everyone should attemp to see at least once.


  2. DR D says:

    Capn Rick: I think I saw it but did’nt know it was ISS It was really brite. I have a special chair 2 watch the sky. I have a 6 inch reflector but it is manual and hars 2 track. Thanx Dr D

    • atridim says:

      Hey DR D,
      Thanks for your comment. Your special viewing chair sounds wonderful.
      Use the NASA link I provided above to learn of the next sighting in your area. I welcome you to share your experience in another comment below.
      I am going to try and capture a photo of it on a future flyover. Its a 1 in 1000 chance of getting the camera settings right…but I will give it my best ‘shot’.
      Captain Rick

  3. atridim says:

    Great ISS show over Phoenix, Arizona on October 8, 2013 at 7 PM

    Viewing itinerary:
    7:00 PM: The ISS will approach from the SW at approximately 45 degrees elevation.
    7:03 PM: The ISS will be 13 degrees from straight up (a very rare occurrence for Phoenix).
    7:06 PM: The ISS will be half way to the NE horizon.

    I knocked on a bunch of neighbors doors and invited them to come out on our street and watch. We had about 20 people standing on the street corner watching. A few cars even stopped to see what all the fuss was about and they joined the watch. None had ever seen the ISS. It turned out to be sort of a mini block party for 20 minutes or so. They were asking me so many questions about the ISS that I barley got a chance to keep my eye on it. Most questions came from a teenage boy. He shook my hand afterwards and thanked me for a great experience. That really made my day and the entire experience well worthwhile. Perhaps he has gained a new interest in astronomical science.

    Captain Rick

    • atridim says:

      I emailed an ISS sighting alert to my friends around the Phoenix area.

      I received the following email reply from Lina of Arizona:

      We saw it- with all the grandkids! After several airplane false alarms, we definitely picked out the ISS and watched it until it was out of sight in the northeast.

      Thanks for the heads up and including the details in your report. Definitely fascinating!
      And it was fun to watch the satellite tracker coming and going.


  4. atridim says:

    ISS Sunrise vs. Sunset Sightings

    There are differences between sunrise and sunset sightings of the ISS.

    My preference is a sunrise sighting because the suns rays illuminate most of the ISS as it approaches from the west. This makes the ISS very noticeable as soon as it rises above earth’s shadow. From that point it is easy to follow the ISS almost all the way to the eastern sunrise horizon. It makes for a long, enjoyable show, often lasting 10 minutes or more. My advice is to get up early and watch a sunrise show. It will start your day with amazement.

    In contrast, a sunset sighting of the ISS receives back lighting as it approaches from the west. Only a few areas of the ISS is initially illuminated. This makes it difficult to pick out the ISS from among the stars and planes until it reaches higher in the sky when more of its surfaces are illuminated. From that point it is easy to follow the ISS most of the way to the eastern horizon, when it disappears into earth’s shadow. Its departure is brighter than a sunrise departure because more of its surfaces are illuminated by the sun’s rays. Because of a delayed time in identifying the ISS as it approaches, causing a bit of frustration, its show may not be as long and enjoyable.

    The amount of surface of the ISS that is illuminated near its closest encounter overhead is similar for both sunrise and sunset sightings. Both produce an equally awesome view. The higher the angle of view is (90 degrees is straight up), the closer the ISS will be when it passes overhead (its closest encounter is just 250 miles).

    Every ISS sighting is unique because of the time of day, the month of the year and where on earth you happen to be when the ISS passes your way. For sure, every sighting is a great one.

    Captain Rick

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