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Tracking the Space Station

Encourage your students to catch a glimpse of the space station in the night sky.
Grades:
3 |
4 |
5 |
6 |
7 |
8
Subjects:
Science (4,978)

Themes:

Space (475)

The space station and shuttle (when it's in orbit) can be viewed fromearth if you know when and where to look.  NASA has solved the problemof where to look by creating an orbit tracking Website -- you'll need a Java enabled browser to use the page.

Best Viewing Times:
Since the space station has little or no light of it's own, you'llonly be able to see it when the station is in sunlight and folks on theground are in darkness. The best viewing times are the hours just beforeor after sunrise or sunset while the station is passing overhead. A listof viewing times can be found here.

What you'll see:
Assuming the station is in sunlight, it should appear as a bright andfast moving star. The longest the station will remain in view to a groundbased observer is 4 minutes. When passing directly overhead, the stationzips from horizon to horizon is 240 seconds or less. For most locations,the viewing window will be 120 seconds (or less).

Where to look:
Where to find the space station depends entirely upon where you areas the station comes into viewing range. Generally speaking the stationis moving from west to east in its orbit around the earth but the groundtrack for most of North America changes over time and the station may appearto "rise" anywhere from the northwest to southwest depending upon its orbitalphase. Check NASAReal Data for more details.

Should I use a telescope?
Unless you are a very experienced user, the answer is no. The stationis moving too quickly to stay in your field of view more than a few moments.Naked eye viewing is best and a pair of binoculars can be used once you'vesighted the station. Over time, as construction increases the size of thestation, sharp eyed observers might be able to make out the station's generalshape.

How can I take pictures of the station?
Follow the advice in our article, Meteorson Film: Photography Tips and you should be able to capture the SpaceStation's orbital track as it passes across your field of view. You'reonly going to get one chance during each pass to capture the swift movingstation on film, so advance perpetuation is everything.

Additional photography tips:

  1. Using the sighting data from NASA'sReal Data Website and a good compass, find the location of "station rise" set your camera up facing that direction.
  2. Timing is everything. Make sure you have an accurate clock synced to NASAtime and open the shutter of your camera about a minute before the stationis scheduled to appear. Keep the camera's shutter open until the stationleaves your camera's field of view. If all works as planned, you shouldhave a bright line on the finished picture tracing the satellite's trajectoryacross the sky.  Don't fret, it may take several attempts beforeyou get the perfect picture.
Good luck and happy viewing!