How to Spot the International Space Station in the Sky

Photo:  Darryl Fonseka (Shutterstock)
Photo: Darryl Fonseka (Shutterstock)

If you’ve ever looked up at the lights in the nighttime sky and wondered if there’s life up there, rest assured that there is. The third brightest object in the heavens is the International Space Station where seven people currently reside: three NASA astronauts, one person from the European Space Agency, and three Russian cosmonauts. Spotting the ISS in its orbit is easy too—if you know where (and when) to look. The ISS isn’t the only spacecraft orbiting Earth either. There are thousands, and many are large enough and low enough to see with the naked eye.

How to spot the International Space Station

The ISS is the easiest manmade object to spot in the nighttime sky. The thing is huge—about the size of a football field—and it reflects enough sunlight to appear 16 times brighter than the North Star if conditions are right. It orbits the Earth every 90 minutes too, so you can probably see it within the next few days.

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Because of the station’s orbit, you can only see it soon after or before sunset in the continental United States. It appears low in the sky, close to the horizon, and looks like a fast-moving airplane, except without blinking lights. It doesn’t “twinkle” like a star either—just a relatively fast-moving light.

To facilitate your satellite peeping, NASA maintains Spot the Station, a location-based site that will tell you exactly when to look up to see the space station. Visit the site, enter your hometown, and mark your calendar for the ISS’s next appearance.

Like any star-gazing, for the best experience, find as dark a location as possible, douse all sources of light for about half an hour to give your eyes a chance to adjust, and look at the part of the sky NASA recommends. You don’t need a telescope or binoculars to see the ISS, but I highly recommend using either: It’s very cool to see the actual shape of the satellite.

How to spot StarLink Satellites

No matter how you feel about Elon Musk, his armada of thousands of satellites looks pretty cool in the night sky. The internet-providing Starlink satellites from SpaceX appear as a train of lights that many have mistaken for UFOs.

They are in a very low orbit, but they’re not huge, so they can be a little harder to spot than the ISS. When you can see them depends on where you are and the cloud cover, obviously, but this site uses your exact location to tell you when the next (hopefully visible) Starlink chain will pass over, and uses Google’s Street View to show you exactly where to look in the sky. You can even schedule a reminder so you don’t miss it.

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