Spot the Station


You can easily see satellites silently passing overhead in the night sky, if you know when to look. The best time is shortly after sunset or before sunrise. The satellites look like a slow moving star.

Cool things to watch for….

1. If it slowly disappears, it has passed into the earth’s shadow. You can see the satellite because we are in the dark but the satellite is high enough to still be in the sunlight.

2. If the satellite goes bright then dim then bright then dim again, it’s space junk that is tumbling in orbit…..It is amazing how much “junk” is circling overhead. It makes me nervous to think of some of it falling out of orbit, but the chunks should burn up before they crash.

3. If the satellite is going on a north-south path, it is most likely a military/surveillance  satellite. Most orbiting crafts are launched to the east to use the rotation of the earth for a “boost”…north-south orbits are great for watching the earth but expensive.

4. When you watch enough of them, you notice they appear to be moving at different speeds. Actually they are all traveling roughly the same speed to remain in orbit. The ones that look like they are moving slower are orbiting at a higher altitude, while the speedy ones are at a lower altitude.

5. If it has flashing lights, it’s a plane. Listen and you will usually hear the engines. I still make that embarrassing mistake on a regular basis.

The ISS (International Space Station) is the largest object in orbit around the earth, not counting the moon of course. There is always a crew onboard performing assorted experiments in space. It takes up more space than a football field. The working area is larger than three school buses. It makes the most impressive flyby because the huge solar panels reflect lots of sunlight. People with good vision claim it looks more like a “dash” instead of a “dot”. (I just see a bright, but blurred, dot.)

I heard reactions from, “THAT’S THE MOST INCREDIBLE THING I HAVE EVER SEEN!” to, “THAT’S IT? I thought it would be bigger! I’m going back inside…”

The trick is knowing when to look. NASA has a link called Spot the Station. You simply type in the requested info, choose the closest city near you, and they will send you an email on when to go out and look. I have tested it and it works great.

This is one of their emails…

Time: Sat Feb 09 6:54 PM, Visible: 5 min, Max Height: 42 degrees, Appears: SSW, Disappears: ENE

It tells you when, how long it will be visible, how high it will be in the sky….0 Degrees = on horizon(don’t bother)  and 90 degrees is straight up! 🙂

This one will appear in the South-Southwest and go down in the East-Northeast.

Obviously all bets are off it it’s cloudy.

Amaze your friends by setting your clock and “predicting” a flyby of the ISS..


About Mike

Retired science teacher that is learning to blog...

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