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Apr 26, 2015
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Tracking the Space Station

The space station and shuttle (when it's in orbit) can be viewed from earth if you know when and where to look.  NASA has solved the problem of 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'll only be able to see it when the station is in sunlight and folks on the ground are in darkness. The best viewing times are the hours just before or after sunrise or sunset while the station is passing overhead. A list of viewing times can be found here.

What you'll see:
Assuming the station is in sunlight, it should appear as a bright and fast moving star. The longest the station will remain in view to a ground based observer is 4 minutes. When passing directly overhead, the station zips 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 are as the station comes into viewing range. Generally speaking the station is moving from west to east in its orbit around the earth but the ground track for most of North America changes over time and the station may appear to "rise" anywhere from the northwest to southwest depending upon its orbital phase. Check NASA Real Data for more details.

Should I use a telescope?
Unless you are a very experienced user, the answer is no. The station is 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've sighted the station. Over time, as construction increases the size of the station, sharp eyed observers might be able to make out the station's general shape.

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

Additional photography tips:

  1. Using the sighting data from NASA's Real 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 NASA time and open the shutter of your camera about a minute before the station is scheduled to appear. Keep the camera's shutter open until the station leaves your camera's field of view. If all works as planned, you should have a bright line on the finished picture tracing the satellite's trajectory across the sky.  Don't fret, it may take several attempts before you get the perfect picture.
Good luck and happy viewing!

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