See the Shuttle and ISS together (kinda) tonight!

By Phil Plait | December 19, 2006 1:42 pm

Tonight, you may get a chance to see something in the sky that is extremely cool: the Space Shuttle as it pulls away from the space station.

Either one of these objects is easily visible from the ground if they happen to pass overhead. Both together are somewhat brighter. But in this case, if you time it correctly, you might see them as two separate dots traversing the sky in tandem!

The Shuttle undocks at 5:09 p.m. Eastern time. After that, they will slowly separate. Without knowing how quickly they separate it’s hard to say how long it will take before you can resolve them into individual objects, but any time after that is worth a shot.

To see them, go to Heavens Above. Enter your longitude and latitude (it has help for you to get them). Then when it’s all set up, just click on the ISS link under "Satellites". It will give you the details for the next few passes.

For me, it will pass at 6:05 tonight local time. It won’t get too high up, only 33 degrees over the horizon (1/3 of the way to the zenith) but my horizon is clear in that direction. That’ll be four hours after the Shuttle undocks (I am in Pacific time) so I should see them as distinctly separate dots moving across the sky.

Too cool. If you get a chance to see it, post a comment. And if you get images (I’ll try to get some tonight) post them on the Bad Astronomy and Universe Today bulletin board!

Tip of the spacesuit helmet to my old bud Rob Roy Britt from

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA

Comments (28)

Links to this Post

  1. Too Freaking Cool! « UDreamOfJanie | December 19, 2006
  1. We’ll be looking, but we only get a 20 degree maximum altitude here on the coast of NC.

  2. And here in Wellingon, NZ it won’t be seen (according to the Heaven’s Above website) until… Saturday. Hmm… a bit late. (And then, one has to be up around 4am or so to see it.)

  3. The Shuttle lands Friday, which I think is Saturday for you, but by your evening it may be too late anyway. But the ISS will still go round and round…

  4. But the ISS will still go round and round…

    Sure will. Though that’s about all it will do..

    An even cooler sight would be to see the ISS going down in flames into the ocean. Then maybe we could spend our space money a little more productively.

  5. RBH

    Just watched ’em go over the boondocks of central Ohio. Beautiful seeing conditions, and I could easily resolve the shuttle in 8×30 birdwatching binocs. My old eyes couldn’t quite do it alone.

  6. Hey there! I just checked it out fron NE Indiana. It was a perfect night- it being clear and far overhead. The shuttle and station were basically still one entity, but you could *just* make out both at certain points. Very cool! I was surprised they’d not gotten farther apart yet.

    I’ve not had a sighting lately, this one was a treat.

  7. Paul J.

    It just went overhead Northeast Ohio. With binoculars, I was able to make out the two separate objects.

  8. Bob Brinkman (Dayton, OH)

    In Dayton, OH we had crystal clear skies and it was a fantastic site! It went at about about 80 degrees.


  9. chris rattis

    Thank you Phil. That was great. Went outside of work a few minutes before it was supposed to fly over head. Would have loved to have a scope or binoculars with me. My eye site couldn’t make out the shuttle though, but was still cool enough that it was worth going outside.

  10. Bob Brinkman (Dayton, OH)

    Or I should say “they” went over at about 80 degrees. When they were straight overhead we could actually see the separation between the shuttle and station.


  11. Saw it a few minutes ago from SE North Carolina. Viewing was limited (street lights) and it looked like one dot to my eyes, but barely two in some 10 X 50s. (I couldn’t find anything good in a hurry to steady them.)

  12. Ray Mansell (Poughkeepsie, NY)

    We just saw the shuttle/ISS fly overhead here – what an awesome sight! Clear skies, and a bright, bright pair of lights skimming through the sky – binocs clearly showed two very distinct objects.

    Thanks for the pointer!

  13. TravisM

    I just logged on. Missed it by 1/2 an hour. Worst part? I live in DAYTON OHIO! Dangit.

  14. Didn’t see it this time, but I remember a few years back when separation was going on right over Dallas. No binoculars available, but the kids and I saw two dots, separated by about a moon’s width. Very cool, glad lots of folks got to see it tonight. Note: the station is MUCH brighter now than it was then, easily visible even from a street corner in downtown Dallas.

  15. Gary Ansorge

    The only problem with the ISS is it was built by governmnet decree. It would have cost $billions less to do as Warner Von Braun suggested and just use the expended boosters as pressure chambers to live in. Cut a hole, install a hatch and voila, a space station for really cheap but NNOOOO. we just had to be fancy. Well, it costs money to look good in space,,,

    Gary 7

  16. Phil, thanks for the tip! This was very cool, just saw it a few minutes ago. The pair passed just below Vega going from W to NW to N before my son and I lost them in the clouds. They were about a fist-and-a-half apart, I guess that would be about 15 degrees or so? The one in back was noticeably brighter. I guess that would be the ISS.

  17. I just caught it. We have clouds coming in from the south, so I missed most of it, but The Little Astronomer and I did see them after they were past the peak of their arc. They were separated by quite a bit, maybe 20 degrees. I assume the Shuttle was ahead of the station; it was fainter by a magnitude or so, but stil very bright.

    Way cool.

  18. Supernova

    I saw them in the Bay Area! Skies were partly cloudy and there was a fair bit of light pollution, but this actually made it easier to see two bright objects moving at the same speed across the sky. They were separated by, oh, 30 degrees or so, with the shuttle (I assume, since it was fainter) in front. Super cool! Thanks for the heads-up, Phil! Hope you saw them too!

  19. Supernova

    Ha, overlapping comments! :)

  20. Way cool indeed. I just saw them from light-polluted downtown Fremont. Took awhile to find them (just about mid-pass), but I concur with the fist-and-a-half separation.

    – Jack

  21. Laguna2

    ISS passes Europe in the evening when it is not yet dark… :-(

  22. Very bright, and easy to pick out of the airline traffic (1800 EST), as they passed NW, N and NE of Bowie, MD. Dimmed as they passed into shadow before moving below the horizon.

  23. I saw it. Attempted to photograph ISS and Discovery as they passed over my house. If the image turns out (I still use film) it should look great as the Christmas-lighted house with the spacecraft sailing by overhead.

  24. tom

    I’ve been waiting for MONTHS now to try to photograph the station with the new solar panels installed.
    I’m in Seattle – need I say more? Long, dark, cloudy, wet (VERY wet I should add), some snow, and now last week the windstorm of the decade! Grrrr…grumble, gripe, complain…..

    Anyway, check out some of the photos of the ISS that I’ve taken in the past!


  25. It was low in the NorthWest in SouthEast North Carolina.

    (Look! All four compass points in one sentence!)

    I think I’m dizzy now….


  26. Bill Schroedel

    Did anyone hear of or see an early morning (what appearred to be a rocket vapor trail) on 12/16/2006. I saw this and was quite surprised. Never have I seen this before in the area. I am looking for an explanation

  27. Lynette

    I JUST SAW THEM about 10 minutes ago here in central Virginia! Amazing sight! Both were moving fairly fast near the moon and they looked like unblinking stars, easily visible with the naked eye. First one disappeared then the other about 2 seconds later at the same spot. COOL!!!!


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