The ISS (International Space Station) and Space Shuttle Visual Observation Guide for
Welcome to the ISS (Internationl Space Station ) Visual Observation page. This page was designed to inform those in and around the Hunstville, Alabama area when the ISS can be visually observed with the naked eye as it passes over our area. If you have never visually seen MIR, ISS, the US Space Shuttle, or any satellites traveling through space, you will be overwhelmed when you actually see them for the first time.
You might be thinking to yourself, that it is impossible to see these objects in the sky as they pass over. Of course, you may be more impressed that the ISS circles the Earth every 90 minutes.
How can we see the ISS in the sky with the naked eye?
Have you ever wondered why you can see the Moon?
The reason you can see the Moon is that it reflects light from the Sun. Often times, the Earth blocks light from reaching the Moon. For this very reason, we do not see the big round Moon known as the Full Moon, because some of the light from the Sun is being blocked causing a shadow on the moon. The same reasoning holds true for watching the ISS in the sky. The Spacecraft reflects light from the Sun and makes it looks like a bright star that is moving rapidly across the sky.
There are many factors that determine when and where to look the ISS or the Space Shuttle. Here are some of the basic criteria and conditions that make it possible to see these objects in the sky.
The sky must be relatively clear. The basic rule of thumb is if you can see stars in the sky, then the conditions are probably good for viewing the Space Stations.
The Sun must be below the horizon (evening or morning).
The ISS or Space Shuttle must be passing over the area when the first 2 conditions are met.
The ISS will usually be the brightest star in the sky. Did I say stars? Yes, it will look like a bright star that is moving across the sky. The amount of time you have to view the object depends on the elevation angle of the Spacecraft and how far the Sun is below the horizon. The higher the angle of elevation, the longer you will see it depending on how far the Sun is below the horizon. The high elevation passes will provide up to a 10 minute window if the Sun is in the right position. If I confused you with the term high angle elevation pass, this simply means that these objects will not always pass directly overhead. Instead, they may only rise above the horizon at a 30 or 50 degree angle of elevation relative to the horizon. When the ISS is around 45 degrees or higher above the horizon, many people think it is almost directly overhead because it looks that way.
A Story from Panama City Beach
I cannot begin to tell you how many bets I have won telling people they can watch MIR, ISS, or the Space Shuttle as they pass overhead under the right conditions. Several years ago I was in Panama City, Florida getting ready to watch the 4th of July firework celebration from the white sand beach when it occurred to me that the US Space Shuttle had just completed an undocking maneuver with the MIR Space Station. So, I ran out to my Jeep and checked my laptop computer to calculate the times. Since the Space Shuttle was only 10 minutes away from passing over Panama City. I ran back down to the beach and told my brother that we would be able to see it pass over and we should be able to watch both MIR and the US Space shuttle follow the same path separated by some distance. When the time came at 8:37pm we did not see anything. The disbelievers where starting to cry hoax until my brother seen the first object rise above the trees. The tress blocked about 3 minutes of the view, but we were in business. I told my brother if we see another object following the first one, then we were watching the real thing. A few seconds later the next star appeared and it was indeed following the same path as the first. The excitement was growing as people were pointing toward the sky and passing the word up and down the beach. It was an awesome site and one I am sure many will never forget. When the first object was about 28 degrees above the horizon in the Southeast sky it disappeared just like the second object. The Earth was now blocking the path between the Sun and the objects in the sky. Depending on the orbit and the position of the Sun, you may not be able to see an entire pass over your area. Once you have seen them a few times, it becomes easier to spot them in the sky as they pass over. Then, you will realize there are more things moving in the sky than you ever imagined. Although, few of these objects will be as bright as the ISS. As the International Space Station is constructed, it will be even brighter in the future since there will be more surface area to reflect the light from the Sun.
When to watch for the ISS from Huntsville
Visit the following site to find when ISS will be visible over your area. It also contains numerous other spacecraft that can be seen wit the naked eye:
This page was last updated on 25-Oct-2001