Did you know that you can see the International Space Station with the naked eye? It’s actually quite bright! Space.com reports on some great opportunities to see the ISS from North America and Europe over the next few weeks. They include a recommendation for http://www.heavens-above.com for figuring out your viewing times.
On the home page, under “Configuration” choose “select from map”* or “select from database” in order to find your location. This will determine when you can see the ISS. Once you’ve picked your location (which can also be done manually) and hit “Submit” you go back to the main page where you can click “ISS” under “Satellites.” This will give you the visible passes for the next 10 days. Note that the time is 0 to 24, there is no A.M. or P.M.
So now you have the visibilities, and you know the times they will occur. Now, look at the column “Alt.” under “Max altitude.” Good viewings will happen when that is a high number, that is, when the ISS very high in the sky and above trees, buildings, etc. Finally, check out the “mag” column. That tells you how bright the ISS will appear, where low numbers mean bright! For example, the faintest stars the naked eye can see in the country is 6, and bright Venus is -4.
Here is my example. This shows that on Friday night, I will have a good high pass before 10pm, perfect as long as the weather is clear.
There are other satellites that get really bright, and if you are outside stargazing, you will see many more fainter ones. They do not zip across like fast moving meteors, or “shooting stars,” nor will they have multiple lights and/or blink like airplanes. They chug along, slowly and purposefully, with a single star-like light, through some portion of the sky. The Iridium satellites are famous for bright flares thanks to their very reflective and flat aluminum antennae. These “Iridium Flares” are listed under “Satellites” on the Heavens Above page for the next 24 hours and 7 days. Check it out! And think about how far we’ve come as a technological civilization when we can look up and see our spacecraft orbiting our home planet.
*When I do this, it set the time to Central European, and I haven’t figure out how to change it. But since that is UT+2, subtract 2 hours from the time column to get Universal Time. If you don’t know how to convert to your time from UT, here’s a guide for those in the US (and daylight savings is in effect!) If you use the database instead of the map, the time seems to be correct.