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Spot The Station

I was recently asked by a local magazine The Kitchen Draw to write an article about science and/or space. I wrote two articles and the space one won out. It’s about how to spot the International Space Station.  I couldn’t find it on the site as it was print only but I figured I’d post what I wrote here because why not eh? So, without further ado.

Did you know that you can see the International Space Station with the unaided eye? In fact you might have seen it and not even realized it. Let’s start off with what we’re looking at in the first place.

What is the International Space Station?

The ISS is the largest man made structure ever built in space. If you were to lay it on a football field it would extend beyond the boundary lines. It measures some 350ft long and weighs in at over 100 tons. There are currently 6 crew on board but when shuttle was flying, there were as many as 13 on board. Construction on the station was completed in 2011 as the space shuttle went into retirement and it took 12 years to complete.
The purpose of the space station is multifaceted in that we want to know how to build things in space, live in space and conduct science in space. The effects of micro-gravity on the human body aren’t entirely understood and zero-g experiments on Earth are nearly impossible to conduct.


Ok, so, where is it?

It’s in space! OK, more specifically it’s in low earth orbit at an altitude of around 350km (220mi). The average speed of station is around 28000kmh (17,500mph). If that sounds fast, that’s because it is fast. Any slower and it would fall right back to Earth!
The first thing you need to know is when to look. Here’s a site I use which allows you to set up email notifications:

The trick with looking for the ISS is that you can only see it with the naked eye in the morning or in the evening. The reason is that during the height of the day it’s just too bright to see the station. In the middle of the night the station will be in Earth’s shadow. Morning and evening is when you’re catching it in between these two extremes.

Now that you know when too look, you need to know where. Personally, I prefer evening viewing as I’m just not a morning person. The site will give you the option for either or both times of day. When you get a notification it might look confusing but it’s really quite easy once you get the hang of it. The diagram on this page will help to get you oriented but at the very least so long as you which direction to look (i.e. Northwest at 6:52pm) then you’re in pretty good shape.

A view of ISS from my hometown.

A view of ISS from my hometown.

So what are you looking for anyway?

It will initially appear as a slow moving dot and might even look like a plane. This is why you might have seen it and not realized what it was. The thing is, you won’t hear any sound and you won’t see any blinking lights.

What’s in it for me?

As much as I’d like to say it’ll be this massive object with solar panels bulging out and astronauts hanging off of it; it isn’t.

Wait, there is more! Despite it not appearing as more than a bright, fast moving dot, you have to remind yourself there are people inside that dot. They’re passing nearly directly over your head at many times the speed of a bullet. They’re studying everything from material science to medicine to planetary science.

To me that’s awesome enough but there’s one more thing station will do if viewed in the evening; it will pass into Earth’s shadow. It’s quite a sight to see as the white dot slowly takes on a yellow tint, then orange, and finally a deep red before being eclipsed by our home planet.

The take away, for me, is a deeper understanding of our place in the Universe. The ISS is a sort of beacon of humanity and what we can accomplish when we work together. As it is now, the International Space Station is our single outpost in space and will be for some time. Why not take a few minutes of a warm summer evening and gaze upward? It’s a subtle event but it’s worth your time. I’ll never forget the first time I said “Wow… There it is!”

Keep this in mind; This is what you’re seeing

Please watch this video. Set screen to full. Set to the highest resolution your internet can handle and turn it up. You won’t regret it.

NASA Gets a Quarter from Every Dollar

First thing’s first: NASA does NOT get a quarter from every dollar. A quarter would be 25% of the entire Federal Budget.  Math isn’t hard.

That does get attention though doesn’t it?  Seems there is a misconception on how much money NASA actually gets.  I’m sure that if anyone reads this they have the intellect enough to google “NASA federal budget” and find out how much NASA really gets.  The answer just might shock most people.

I’ve known for years how much money NASA gets and it’s paltry.  Bad Astronomy has inspired me to blog about it myself.  Sure he gets more readers but in the name of science, every voice must be heard!  Also, I’m going to mooch some of the content of his blog.  Why invent the wheel twice?

This article talks about the perception of NASA and what it does, among other things.  The stunning part was where respondents were asked how much money NASA got.  24% was the number.  That would be 3% more than Defense.  This was in 2007.

So how much money does NASA get?  In 2007, 0.58% of the Federal Budget.  A little more than half a penny per dollar.  That’s pretty sad, eh?  We’re talking about an organization that put men on the Moon.  They put up a telescope that was a dud and then fixed it: in space.  They’ve done most of the heavy lifting in construction of the International Space Station.  They’ve sent probes all over the Solar System to study the planets.  Two rovers are still on Mars performing science well beyond their planned mission time.

I haven’t even scratched the surface.  That’s the stuff we hear about somewhat regularly but let it go, in passing.

Given that they can do so much with so little, I would be amazed to see what they could do if given a little more.  Keep in mind that at NASA there is still wasteful spending.  It’s a government organization, duh.  Even with that, they’re able to do such amazing things.  Not bad for being so low on the totem pole.

If you ever wonder why we haven’t done more or gone further in space, then wonder no more.  Shun the non-believers, shuuuuuunnnnnnn.

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