• Jo

Catching a glimpse of the International Space Station


Space stations are designed to provide a permanent, habitable location for astronauts in space. Their primary purpose is for scientific research in terms of earth observation and effects of prolonged spaceflight on the human body.

Docking bar of the ISS being assembled in the Marshall Space Flight Centre (AL, USA) (Copyright Jo Morris)

The International Space Station (ISS) is the 9th space station to be permanently occupied. I was lucky enough to see parts of it being built when I went Huntsville AL, USA for my work experience in 2000.  It is made up of modules that were launched over a number of years adding different sections at a time.  The first module was launched in 1998.  It was permanently manned by space crew in 2000 and was finally completed in 2009. A number of countries are responsible for its operation including the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and Europe.


It is the second brightest object in the night sky after The Moon. It is easy to tell the difference between it and a plane as it travels much faster across the sky and the light doesn’t blink. The ISS has 16 photovoltaic blankets that are grouped into 4 solar array wings.  Each wing is 34 meters long and 12 meters wide.  The light you see isn't produced by the ISS itself but rather the sunlight reflecting off the solar arrays.

The bright dot is the International Space Station taken using my iPhone (Copyright Jo Morris)

In order spot the ISS flying over your back garden the best idea is to download an app. There are a few with range of purchase options from free, to in-app purchases, to buying outright. I would spend some time reading the reviews and trying the free ones before spending too much. I use GoISSWatch ISS Tracking (iOS) as I have an Apple iPhone but they are available across other platforms.


After opening the app you will see a globe and where the ISS is flying over. It is possible to scroll through time to see where it’s orbit is heading. The key is finding an app that can tell you when it will pass over you based on your location. That way you can set an alert and be prepared. The sighting will last no more than a few minutes.




As with anything when it comes to observing the night sky you need to keep your fingers and toes crossed that it’s not too cloudy. Stay safe going out at night and if possible head out with a friend. If you don’t feel safe then find a good view spot from a window facing the right direction and switch off the lights.


During the summer it will be warm enough to go out at night. If you plan on heading out in the winter take enough warm clothes. Take a flask of warm drink and spare blankets. If you drive somewhere make sure you have enough fuel in case of an emergency.


#internationalspacestation #nightsky #app #hotchocolate


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