Looking up (at) the ISS

March 21, 2010

The International Space Station

I recently posted on Facebook that I had (again) run outside with the kids to watch the ISS fly overhead.  A few of my friends posted some questions that I thought could be answered in a blog post and shared with everyone, because this is something that more people should know about; that more people should do with their kids.

So here is your quick guide to watching the ISS go overhead.

By the way, just so everyone knows what to expect, you’re not going to see the space station’s structure or anything – you’re going to see a bright speck of light.  The ISS flies overhead at an altitude of over 180 miles, so you won’t see anything but that bright speck.

The first thing you need to know is where and when to look.  For that, I wholeheartedly recommend http://www.heavens-above.com.  What this site lacks in looks it makes up for in sheer power.

Heavens-Above Needs To Know Where You Are

When you first enter the site, it won’t know where you are, so you need to tell it, and there are a few different ways – you can zoom into and mark your location on a Google Map, you can use the site’s database to find your location, or if you happen to know your exact longitude and latitude, you can enter it manually.  You can also make an account so that when you come back, you just log in and it remembers who you are.

OK, so now the site knows where you are, and you’re ready to look for satellite passes!  A little lower on the home page is the Satellites section, and the first link is for the next 10 days of passes for the ISS.  Something like this…

Upcoming Satellite Passes

“Woah”, I hear you say.  “That’s a lot of data!  What does it all mean?” Don’t worry.  It’s not as bad as it looks.

On the far left are the date and magnitude of the pass.  Then you’ve got three sections for when the pass starts, peaks, and ends.  So you can see that for the pass on April 7:

  • At 5:15 AM, you would want to be facing west-southwest to see the beginning of the pass.
  • At that time, the satellite will begin to be visible at 20° above the horizon.
  • At its peak (about 2 minutes later), the ISS will be at 58° above the horizon looking northwest.
  • It will set about 3 minutes after peak at 10° above the horizon in the northeast.

Now, what about that “magnitude” value.  -3.2“Is that good?” you ask. Yeah, that’s really good.  Apparent magnitude is an odd sort of astronomical measurement of brightness that makes sense if you know where it came from, but I’ll let you follow that link if you’re curious.  What you need to know is this:

Human eye limit roughly +6.5
Faintest objects visible in urban areas roughly +3.5
Polaris (the North Star) +1.97
Sirius (the brightest star) -1.44
Mars (at brightest) -2.9
Faintest visible daytime objects -4.0
Venus (at brightest) -4.4
Full Moon -12.7
Sun -26.7

So you see that this pass will be brighter than even Mars at its brightest, and will be outshined only by Venus, the Moon, and (if it were up) the Sun.  Given that these passes are only listed for times when the sun is down, and it’s possible that both Venus and the Moon will also be down, the ISS could easily be the brightest object in the sky as it passes.

The other thing to realize with a pass as bright as -3.2, don’t be discouraged if it’s a little hazy outside.  Or if you’re in a big city with lots of light pollution.  Step outside, get used to the dark for a while, and if you can see ANY STARS AT ALL, you’ll be able to see the ISS.

“But Rob,” you say, “can I visualize the track, rather than rely on these compass directions?” Absolutely.  Notice that the date of each pass is blue.  Just click on it.  You’ll get lots more details about that pass, including a convenient sky map:

Map of ISS Flyover

If you’ve never looked at a sky map before, the outer circle represents the horizon, and the center of the map is directly overhead.  You’ll also notice that East and West appear backwards.  That’s because you’re supposed to look up at this map, not down on it like other maps.  To make the compass directions work out, just imagine holding it up over your head.  I have actually done this before – print out a sky map and taken it outside with me to make sure I had the right directions.

Here you see this nice arc drawn across the sky showing the path of the ISS as it flies overhead.  It’ll appear near Virgo, fly through Bootes and Draco, then Cepheus and Cassiopeia before setting in the Northeast.

OK, so now you know WHERE to look, and WHEN to look (oh, and by the way, if you’re a night owl, not an early riser, plenty of passes happen at early evening hours – they’re not all pre-dawn times).  So the question becomes – do I need to bring anything else with me?

Well…  Not really!  This isn’t like watching a meteor shower, where you need to bundle up since you’ll be out there for a while.  You can be in and out in 10 minutes.  And a telescope wouldn’t work – the ISS moves too fast.  It’ll take about 6 minutes to completely fly overhead.  You could try binoculars, if you want, but I really recommend – especially for the first few – to just go outside and watch.  And take people with you.  Especially kids.

Take them out there, show them this point of light in the sky, zipping along, and tell them “We built that.  We put it up there.  And there are astronauts living up there right now, flying around the earth at over 17,000 mph.  And 45 minutes from now, they’ll be flying over the other side of the world.”

If that isn’t cool, I don’t want to know what is.

..Rob T. missed tonight’s Magnitude -2.9 flyover because of accursed rain clouds!

Dragoncon & Star Party

June 29, 2009

I’ll be attending Dragoncon in Atlanta this Labor Day.

I’ll also be attending the star party and dinner hosted by Phil Plait and Pamela Gay. I’m looking forward to meeting the Skepchicks, the Skeptic Zone Australians, and all the other notorious skeptics.

If you haven’t signed up for Dragoncon and the Star Party, you should go do that, and be sure to let me know that you’re going because it’s always fun to meet new friends.

Science For The Kids: 9/11 Edition!

September 11, 2008

OK, so Sid the Science Kid wasn’t very palatable to me at first.  Regardless, I’m starting to regret that review, if only because I feel like they’ve since done a good job of teaching science, but I do stand behind my analysis that there is something wrong with the characters, the songs, and the animation.  So, in the wake of that disappointment, I bring you my picks for this month…

A new computer game is out called Spore.  If you haven’t heard of it, basically this is a game where you can design your own type of creature via simulated evolution.  What a neat way to imagine!  Unfortunately, clever teenagers are already creating monsters that look like walking phallic symbols.  *sigh*  A creationist is already whining about this game on an anti-spore blog, so we know it must be good stuff.

Skeptic magazine has been active for years, but I’ve only just now started buying it.  One of the best sections in the magazine is found on the last few pages – a monthly chapter for children called Junior Skeptic.  This week’s feature in the back is about Crystal Skulls.  Very cool!

If you haven’t had a chance to download Astronomy Cast, then let me be the first to recommend it to you.  I guarantee that each episode will teach you something you didn’t already know (unless you’re an astrophysicist).  The information is laid out in a way that is simplistic enough for children, without talking down to them or shying away from complexity.  Every episode they explain that they not only teach what they know, but how they know it.  If only every science class would follow that same model.

Science For the Kids!!

May 30, 2008


This is the latest installment of Science For The Kids.  Every few weeks I try to bring some interesting science entertainment for parents to share with their children.    I was never interested in science as a child because of the way I was taught – too formal and simplified, without context to the world around me.  Perhaps this series will inspire many of you to supplement your child’s classwork with these alternatives.

This weekend is the first annual WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL in NYC!  Take your kid!

Squid Labs has a fantastic science site called Instructables, which is kind of like an internet show & Tell science fair.  Basically, the site allows you to upload your project, product modification, science craft, or invention, so that others can learn how to do it themselves.  You can come up with all kinds of fun ideas that are practical, silly, or, just crazy.

Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer, was asked by his friend, an elementary school teacher, to answer some basic astronomy questions from her students.  Sometimes it’s best to learn from the experts who are most passionate about the subject, and Phil is the perfect astronomer to ask because he has such a wide scope of knowledge on the subject and he cares deeply about science integrity.  Check out the videos here:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5

Put your children (or yourself) on the fast track to winning the nobel prize by introducing them to the new science game Fold It!  This puzzle uses real-world protein molecules and asks you to fold the chain of amino acids and connect them in interesting ways.  There are nearly an infinite number of ways to fold these molecules, and computers have systematically tried many of them, but folding a protein in just the right way may solve some of the world’s most debilitating diseases, such as HIV, cancer, and alzheimers.


May 13, 2008


This is a new segment on the Skeptic Dad blog.  Every few weeks I’ll post about scientific things in the news that you can apply to your own family.  Hopefully, you’ll be able to make science education fun by developing your child’s curiousity and enthusiasm for scientific exploration.

The first item I want to bring to your attention is the new World Wide Telescope.  Those parents who have installed Google Sky onto their desktop will not want to miss Microsoft’s sleek and stylish answer to their cyber-counterparts at Google.  World Wide Telescope is accessible, free to download, and the functions are easy to use.  It’s the perfect complement to an actual telescope.

There are a variety of summer camps, some of them religious and others secular, but there is only one Camp Quest, the first summer camp for children of secular freethinkers, humanists, and atheists.  The camp is meant to foster a rational and logical worldview, and to focus on the natural world over the supernatural.  You can find a Camp Quest in Ohio, Minnesota, Smokey Mountains, California, Michigan, and Ontario.  I don’t blame people for being a little concerned about brainwashing, but the whole point of this camp is to avoid dogma by encouraging the campers to think for themselves.  My own parents were concerned when I brought up the subject of this camp, but they forgot that I was sent to a christian camp as a child.  Why not send your kids to a humanist freethought camp?

Expelled Exposed has been doing a lovely job of squashing the arguments in Ben Stein’s despicable Expelled “documentary”.  One video on the site challenges the intelligent design argument of the complexity of the eye.  Check it out…



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