How To Observe The International Space Station

The International Space Station is owned by NASA, CSA, Roscosmos, ESA, and JAXA. It is the most significant artificial object in the sky, and easily the biggest satellite in low orbit. It is visible to the naked, and you can track it! 

Here’s how you can observe the ISS

You can see the ISS with your naked eye from many points on Earth. It orbits our planets about 15 times a day, so as long as you’re in the orbit path, it’s relatively easy to spot. To see it more clearly, use a telescope or binoculars with a magnification of 100x or more. Increasing magnification to about 250x will reveal the solar panels and other components. 

Can you see an astronaut? Just kidding, let’s dive right in and see what the best conditions for observing the ISS are and how you can find it in the night sky!

A quick guide to spotting the ISS

The International Space Station can be viewed from various locations around the planet. It is easily spotted, as it is the third brightest object that appears during nighttime. You can view it with your naked eyes while it transits the sky at thousands of miles per hour. 

As a giant metallic object, measuring 110m x 100m x 30m, the ISS is highly reflective and therefore visible to the naked eye. The best time to view the ISS is during night time, or when the Sun is setting or rising. 

What makes the ISS visible? 

As the years have passed, the ISS has become larger and larger as upgrades were added, and thus, it became even brighter as well. It isn’t so difficult to spot the ISS since you will recognize it quickly. 

The only thing you need to know is when to look for it, as it is visible at specific points in time while it passes through your location. The way the Sun reflects the light is actually what makes the ISS visible. 

This is the reason why it doesn’t always appear as glorious as it passes your head. If the ISS is passing very high above the horizon, then that is when it appears at its most glorious because it reflects most of the Sun’s light.

If it is only slightly above the horizon, it will seem like any other little star that passes through. Hence, you might miss it. 

How often can you see the international space station? 

Although it circles the Earth about 15 times a day, the ISS is visible during the night and isn’t visible every night. There are periods when you can see it in a spectacular way, and others when you can’t see it at all, mostly because of clouds and other weather or atmospheric conditions. 

There are times when the ISS is more visible before sunrise and others when it is viewable during sunset. Because it takes about 90 minutes for the ISS to orbit the planet, you can get lucky and see it two or maybe three times in one morning or evening. 

The ISS doesn’t keep its position and apparent path every night, which is why you don’t always see it as clearly. An excellent visible pass usually occurs about every six weeks. This is valid for every location on Earth.

If you are confused about when to look for the ISS, try checking the internet for websites that expose exactly when it passes through your location, or you can even find out through phone applications.

Is it hard to see the ISS?

First of all, you will need to find out when the ISS will appear above your location. You will need to go outside and accommodate your eyes to the darkness for at least 5 minutes before it shows up.

Use a compass or locate West somehow and face it, because the ISS will rise from that direction (although it might be South-West sometimes).

Seeing the ISS is straightforward, even from your backyard. However, it can also be very easy to miss since it takes only about 5 minutes for it to travel above your head. It can also be very easily mistaken for an aircraft. The difference is that the ISS doesn’t have flashing lights and is much brighter.

Sometimes you can even see a spacecraft sent to the ISS with supplies that are trailing it, at a very close distance or one that can be measured in minutes. 

What magnification do you need to see the ISS?

You can observe the ISS from your own garden or house; however, if you want a better look at it, try finding a dark place to watch it from to avoid light pollution. 

One thing to note is that the greater the magnification, the harder it is to see the ISS because it moves fast, and it is hard to track. Even so, if you insist on seeing it as close and as accurate as possible, try using a magnification of 100x plus.

Place your telescope on a mount and align your finder. The perfect moment to spot the ISS is when it is rising above the horizon. This is when you can follow it with the finder and position your scope in front of it. Waste no time and observe it through your eyepiece as it passes.

Do you love details? With a magnification of about 250x, you can see the International Space Station’s solar panels and other cool details. It is spectacular to behold, but it is also tough to track because of the high magnification.

Do you need a telescope? Or binoculars?

You do not need a thing to observe the International Space Station. It is easily seen with the unaided eye, but you can try using binoculars for a greater perspective.

If you dedicate yourself to this and are handy enough to move your telescope along with it, then you might be able to see the panels, crew modules, and the Space Shuttle when it is docked.

However, for those that would just like to observe it closely without too much effort, try using the binoculars for more basic detail. Keep in mind that it is a bit rough because your hands will probably be shaking, and the image won’t be very clear.

You might buy a set of stabilized binoculars if you want to avoid this. Otherwise, just try resting your arms on a handrail or a tripod for less shaking.

Can you track the ISS with a telescope?

Because the ISS moves at such a high speed, it is almost impossible to track it manually with a telescope, especially with a high-magnification eyepiece.

If you wish to see it closer, though, you can try viewing it through binoculars. You will enjoy discovering it’s colored, as well. You won’t see the ISS’s panels or modules, but the brightness and view will be impressive.

For more passionate amateur astronomers, there are mounts for telescopes that can automatically track the satellite with the help of software.

One such program is the Celestron GoTo scopes’ Optic Tracker. It can follow aircraft, satellites, or any other moving object. For it to work, you must first find the moving target by using a joystick. Once you manage that, the telescope will set itself to automatic and track the object by itself. Most other applications work in a similar manner.

Some fun facts about the ISS

The International Space Station has lots of interesting aspects beyond what you can see for yourself. Below are some of our favorite facts about this engineering marvel. Consider them food for thought as you observe!

  • The international Space Station has golden reflective panels. As it moves farther away, it can seem through binoculars that its color turns into a dark ruddy, similar to a fading ember.
  • There were 16 nations that contributed to the ISS’s construction: The United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Brazil, France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
  • The ISS is at a distance of about 260 miles / 418 km away from Earth.
  • There is an amateur radio station that allows you to hear and even speak to those inhabiting the ISS if you wish.
  • It’s about 357 feet long, which gives the astronauts enough space to stretch out.
  • With an estimated cost of over $120B, the ISS is the most expensive object man has ever made.
  • Even computers in space can get earthly viruses. The 52 computers present on the ISS board were infected more than once. 
  • The ISS is one of the only locations where you can smell space (which, if you wondered, the astronauts describe as “metallic”).
  • Living in zero gravity weakens muscles, so the astronauts exercise at least two hours a day while aboard.
  • Astronauts eat three meals a day in a floating position. There are no chairs on the ISS. They are trained to eat slowly so that the food won’t float around the Station.
  • Ever wonder how they breathe up there? It’s through a process called electrolysis, which you might remember from chemistry class. The ISS has tremendous exposure to the Sun, so its solar panels provide electricity that splits water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen.