The ISS sails above the waves

By Phil Plait | December 29, 2010 7:00 am

I’m fairly well-acquainted with the night sky. I love to go outside and just look at the stars, with or without binoculars or a telescope, and over the years I’ve come to think of the sky like I do my neighborhood; warm, friendly, and familiar.

But not everyone is, of course. I think, given the chance, most people would find a lot more to the sky than they would’ve thought. So I encourage curiosity, and do what I can to get everyone to go outside and look up.

That’s why I was pleased to hear of an effort to do that this week: ISS Wave, a project to get people outside when the International Space Station is passing overhead, and get them to wave at it.

I know, the astronauts on board can’t see people waving! But that’s not the point. The idea is to get people outside, to get them to look up, to have them understand that there are people up there, flying above the Earth in a football-field-sized tin can that can not only be seen, but is actually the third brightest object in the heavens!

It’s a cute idea. The ISS Wave site has a live map showing the location of the station over the Earth (you can also get it by going to Heavens Above and entering your location) and the locations of people who have waved. You can enter your own wave by using Twitter; tweet the hashtag "#isswave" followed by your location (examples are listed on the map) and it will automatically update the map. You can follow ISSWAVE on Twitter as well to get updates and info.

People are encouraged to get out this week and do it; the project informally ends on December 31.

I know a lot of people would be very surprised to know they can see the ISS easily with their own eyes, and I bet a lot of ‘em would be very excited to do so. And I can think of two easy outcomes of this: one is that they’ll learn more about the sky and what’s up there. The other is that by doing this they’ll get a connection with the sky. That’s invaluable! Once people feel like they have a emotional attachment to something they’re far more likely to want to learn more about it, do more about it, and remember it. That moment of connectivity is something I always strive for as an educator, and ISS Wave is a pretty nifty way of being the connector.


Related posts:

- Riding the sky
- Ten years of the International Space Station
- And I saw a star rising in… the WEST?
- Two solar ISS transits!


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Space

Comments (39)

Links to this Post

  1. O hai, astronauts! « airless saharas | February 22, 2011
  1. Gary

    A little bit off-topic Phil, but I got your ‘Death From Space’ for christmas and am loving it immensely! :)

  2. Anyone remember that awful movie, Marooned? I seem to recall a sequence where one of the astronauts’ home town blinks its lights on and off while their doomed space capsule is orbiting overhead.

    EDIT: Not saying the ISS is doomed or anything…

  3. MUST DO. Last decent sighting of the year for me is at 17:03 tonight. Hoping it’ll be high and bright enough to beat the street lights. Damn you, suburbia!

  4. Cheyenne

    Why would we wave at the ISS? Anstinyton@gmail.comwer from the ISS Wave website – “…evokes feelings of pride (“We made that!”), solidarity (“There are humans on that! Hellooo, humans!”) and wonder (“It’s just so beautiful/fast/bright!”).”

    That’s the best argument I’ve ever heard for our investment in the ISS.

  5. Heather

    I admire this idea, but they really need to find an idiot-proof way of finding when the ISS will pass overhead. I’m a reasonably intelligent person, but I don’t do this kind of stuff on a regular basis and I got completely confused trying to figure out how to find when the ISS will pass overhead. (So, yeah, I’m on the twitter map saying I’ve waved, but I thought the sending the tweet would actually give me the pass times for my location. Oh well.)

    I’m all for getting people who never look up to actually look up occasionally (I certainly should more often), but the websites need to be redesigned for those people, not for those who already know what they are doing.

    [And I agree, Death from Space was awesome.]

  6. Heather, I use a NASA site which is pretty easy. You should be able to click on my name to get there, otherwise the main page is http://spaceflight1.nasa.gov/realdata/sightings/.

    Use the “sighting opportunities” on the left by selecting your country (USA is the default) and clicking “Go to Country”. You can then select your state/province/area and then your city. Even if you aren’t in one of the listed cities you can get pretty close.

    I love watching the ISS go over. Unfortunately it’s pretty usual for it to be cloudy here.

  7. Chris

    @ Heather
    Look at http://spaceweather.com/flybys/
    You just need to enter your zip code and it’ll tell you when and where to look. For max elevation, 90 degrees would be straight up, 0 would be on the horizon. It looks like Venus going around the speed of an airplane. If you are in a relatively dark location in the summer, if you look up a few hours after sunset, you can see probably a dozen satellites passing overhead. You can also do it now, but it’s too cold for me!

  8. Well this is an interesting coincidence… just last night I was finally testing out my telescope checking out Jupiter and I just happened to be looking around for other objects when I noticed a dot cruising just above the horizon. I thought it was just a plane but then realized it wasn’t blinking and moving quite fast. After a quick confirmation from Stellarium I realized it was the what I had presumed, the ISS. The speed of it made me wonder even more how people have managed to photograph it in various fantastic positions.

    Also something to note, the free program Stellarium is a fantastic PC planetarium piece of software. I think I had it a long time ago but recently rediscovered it and it really helps if you plan on an evening of stargazing. You can even plan when to anticipate an ISS flyby since there’s a satellite tracker.

  9. Lionel

    I never realized that the ISS’s orbital path was a sine curve.
    “But, why?” the liberal arts major asks timidly.

  10. Christian

    How about some instructions, or a link to instructions, on how to locate the space station? That map on the link is cool but I have no idea how to use that in conjunction with finding it on a given night.

  11. quarksparrow

    You can get regular twitter alerts for ISS passes tailored to your location by following TWISS: http://twitter.com/twisst

    It’ll alert you a few hours before the next pass. Awesome service.

  12. Daniel J. Andrews

    Endyo…has Stellarium issued a bug fix now? I upgraded from Vista to Win7, and Stellarium ran took a long time to load, ran very slowly, and was jerky and would randomly freeze. Before the upgrade it worked very well.

    The ISS won’t be visible from my location for at least the next 1o days according to Heaven Above so I won’t get a chance to wave.

    EDIT: yes, they’ve done the bug fix. It runs well again.

  13. Mike Saunders

    Looking at the map, looks like the ‘wave’ is very country specific, any plans to extend the wave outside the ‘west’?

  14. Kevin

    When we get a pass during one of our astro nights here at Bryce Canyon (3X/week during summer), the oohs and ahhs from our visitors are pretty impressive. Folks love it and we always plug Heavens-Above so they can look for it where they live.

  15. Thanks for the shout Phil … hopefully this will get more people waving :D

    @Daniel … well, technically, the ISS flies over any place between +52 and -52 degress of latitude 2-3 times a day. But, to be able to see it well (there are documented observations during daytime) it really needs to happen within 2-3 hours after the sunset or before sunrise, so that when the station is flying over it is not in the Earth’s shadow and the sky is dark enough.

    @Mike the map accepts addresses for any country in the world … it just happens that mostly people in the US and in Europe are aware of this campaign (there are a few waves from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Australia etc).

  16. I feel like it should be noted that the best time to see the ISS (or any satellite or orbiting junk) is around sunset and sunrise. About an hour or two after sunset or before sunrise allows for the most reflectivity while it’s still dark in the sky.

  17. BethK

    We have two passes tonight with one a -3.3 (more negative is brighter). We also have clouds.

    At the parent performance at Penn Manor Marching Band Camp last August, my son and I were looking at the stars, and I spotted the ISS early in an almost overhead pass. It moves slowly enough that we had maybe 50 people get their first sighting of the ISS. Then I alerted my Boy Scout troop that we’d have a few more nights of good passes.

    Young people enjoy knowing that “there are people up there”. Older people do too. It makes the space program less abstract. Great idea to have a wave.

    I use Heavens Above. To help orient yourself, the ISS moves roughly west to east. I generally don’t bother with passes lower than 20 degrees or positive magnitudes. The “best” passes are the ones you weren’t expecting and saw just because you were looking up at the right time enjoying the night sky.

  18. Gus Snarp

    I won’t be able to do this anytime soon, at least not actually seeing it. It’s much too low in the sky on all the passes around here in the next 10 days. But I have gone out and seen it and taken my wife and young son out to see it thanks to reading about it on this blog (this was the last time the shuttle was attached). It’s really cool that it’s something we built, circling the planet at amazing speed, and brighter than Venus. I’ve been telling my family and friends to go out and see it sometime.

  19. miss k

    I have (a somewhat annoying) habit of making people say “hi” to planets, stars and the moon outside of my bar. My friends get irritated at me frequently, but I always know when I’m not there they are still looking up.

  20. Floyd

    A few years ago, I was working in Carlsbad NM, and was reading the Heavens Above website.

    The site alerted me to watch for the Shuttle docking with the ISS that evening. To get more prosaic, I literally watched the Shuttle dock with the ISS while I was washing my laundry.

    It was amazing how quickly the Shuttle docked with the ISS.

    We really need a new Space Shuttle of some kind other than the current Russian capsule.

  21. RwFlynn

    #9, Lionel. That’s a distortion that you see when you make the spherical surface of the Earth and make it flat. On an interesting side note, it’s because of this that no map you’ll ever see will ever be 100% accurate. And being another Liberal Arts major, I think it’s really neat how that distortion turns out be a nice sine pattern like that.

  22. QuietDesperation

    I’m sorry, but must they always have to take it one step into the stupid. Why not just encourage people to look at the ISS passing overhead? Why add the waving part? People are going to think that’s stupid and ignore the whole thing.

    I never realized that the ISS’s orbital path was a sine curve.

    It’s an artifact of mapping the Earth into a flat plane. The circular orbit of the ISS winds up looking like a sine wave when flattened.

  23. Jim from Queens

    I know it’s a trival figure of speech, but at least I wish people and buffs into the sciences wouldn’t describe ISS or any spacecraft as a “tin can”. It demeans the complexity and work that created it and gives the unwashed taxpayer the wrong concept of how “easy” and “needlessly expensive” these craft are when they ought have a healthy appreciation of every unique facet of these creations when NASA public education has never done a good job of promoting the benefits of space science outside a fun roller coaster ride for astronaunts . Even mariners respectfully regard all water craft as “she” not a can or even “it”.

  24. Hah…my kids and I went out to wave at the ISS a few months ago, when a local radio show (thank you, CBC) reminded me that this sort of thing is happening all the time. They’re 2.5 and 4.5, and they really enjoyed it…they still talk about it. It’s an excellent idea.

  25. Kmarion

    There is an app in the android market from the heavens above website. It gives you a notification when the iss is about to pass over. It also let’s you know when and where to look for iridium flares. You can set the magnitude for alerts.

  26. Keith Bowden

    The ISS will be above the Bay Area tomorow early night and the weather should be clear for the transit. With all the lights (and clouds this time of year), I generally can’t see much by way of stars (just the brightest and some planets), so I’m looking forward to this. (I even linked to this page & NASA from Facebook.)

  27. Agree on @twisst suggestion. Follow for sightings tailored to your location – highly recommended for Twitter users.

  28. @ Lionel:

    What RWFlynn said, but adding: unless you are a UFO nutter/conspiracy fan, in which case it PROVES THE ISS IS A SPACECRAFT FROM ANOTHER PLANET!!! (Exclamation marks and caps being an important part of the message.

  29. Poppa San

    Perfect timing. Checked for the next viewing after reading this post and within 5 minutes had my 8 & 10 year olds bundled up and outside to watch the ISS fly almost overhead. Outside waiting all of 2 minutes before the flyby. Love these early winter nights for things like this.

  30. Trebuchet

    @ Miss K, #19:

    “I have (a somewhat annoying) habit of making people say “hi” to planets, stars and the moon outside of my bar. My friends get irritated at me frequently, but I always know when I’m not there they are still looking up.”

    I frequently say “Hello, pretty moon!” when I see it. I haven’t asked anyone else to do so, however. It actually makes about as much sense as waving at the ISS.

  31. Messier Tidy Upper

    Marvellous idea – love this. :-)

    Here in Adelaide, South Oz, when our hometown astronaut Andy Thomas , who flew on several Shuttle flights incl. the first one after the loss of the Columbia and stayed on Mir for months was visble in the sky we had a tradition of turning on all the city lights especially. :-)

    Think this tradition goes all the way back to the good people of Perth during the flight of John Glenn in Friendship 7 – see below :

    @2. kuhnigget :

    Anyone remember that awful movie, Marooned? I seem to recall a sequence where one of the astronauts’ home town blinks its lights on and off while their doomed space capsule is orbiting overhead. EDIT: Not saying the ISS is doomed or anything…

    Haven’t seen that one or have forgotten if I have but something very similar happens in The Right Stuff movie when John Glenn flies over WA (or was it his hometown?) apparently based on historical fact. :-)

    @ 19. miss k (& 30. Trebuchet too) :

    I have (a somewhat annoying) habit of making people say “hi” to planets, stars and the moon outside of my bar. My friends get irritated at me frequently, but I always know when I’m not there they are still looking up.

    Awwwww! I love that. <3 :-)

    I don't (wouldn’t) find that annoying at all but rather very cute. Plus clearly effective at getting others to look up and think. :-)

    @23. Jim from Queens Says:

    I know it’s a trival figure of speech, but at least I wish people and buffs into the sciences wouldn’t describe ISS or any spacecraft as a “tin can”. It demeans the complexity and work that created it and gives the unwashed taxpayer the wrong concept of how “easy” and “needlessly expensive” these craft are when they ought have a healthy appreciation of every unique facet of these creations when NASA public education has never done a good job of promoting the benefits of space science outside a fun roller coaster ride for astronaunts . Even mariners respectfully regard all water craft as “she” not a can or even “it”.

    I see your point here & it is a good one although I very much see that word usage as poetic and an acceptable metaphor.

    My personal bugbear International SpaceStation~wise is its lack of a real name for the overall station rather than just the individual modules. A bland cumbersonme, clunky unimaginative acronynm doesn’t convery the imagination, inspiration and wonder the ISS should provoke. :-(

    I do think the Western public generally fails to appreciate how awesome it and space exploration and development generally is.

    Sure a real name for the ISS wouldn’t be a cure-all but I don’t think it would hurt either.

    So I’d really love to see the ISS named something better – maybe Serenity or Freedom, the original name back when it was a US station idea or Babylon-1 but, heck, I’d even settle for the Colbert station over the dullness of just ISS! ;-)

  32. Messier Tidy Upper

    Links for those who are curious for more info – see this one :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Thomas

    for Adelaide’s own astronaut Andy Thomas.

    This :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury-Atlas_6

    for John Glenn’s Friendship-7 flight. Including this description of what I’ve mentioned above :

    Continuing his journey on the night side of Earth, nearing the Australian coastline, Glenn made star, weather, and landmark observations. He looked for but failed to see the dim light phenomenon known as the zodiacal light; his eyes had insufficient time to adapt to the darkness.The spacecraft came into radio range of Muchea, Australia. At the Mercury Tracking Station there, Gordon Cooper was the capsule communicator. Glenn reported that he felt fine and had no problems. He saw a very bright light and what appeared to be the outline of a city. Cooper said that he probably was looking at the lights of Perth and its satellite town of Rockingham. This turned out to be correct; many people in Perth turned on their lights so as to be visible to Glenn as he passed over. “That sure was a short day,” he excitedly told Cooper. “That was about the shortest day I’ve ever run into.”

    (Off topic, sorry but if only Glenn had suceeded in his 1984 run for the US presidency. Sigh.)

    Plus finally this link :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Right_Stuff_(film)

    For info. on the Right Stuff movie based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book.

    For those who don’t know, wish to refresh their memories or find out more. Hope this is enjoyable / useful / interesting for y’all. :-)

  33. Justin B

    Thanks Kmarion for the hint on the Android App. I’m in PA and unfortunately, the best we get is 10 degrees the next few days so my chances to see it are slim unless I can find a level area as i’m leaving work :-/

  34. katwagner

    Our family has been camping and hiking for a long time – going to campfire talks with park rangers and looking up a lot. When my daughter was young she asked me, “in the daytime, why does the moon turn into a cloud?” Because it’s magic. And let’s hear it for liberal arts majors.

  35. Kmarion

    Your welcome. Here is a link to the app for anyone else interested. It will literally point you in the right direction and track the ISS as it passes through the sky. http://www.appbrain.com/app/heavens-above/com.heavensabove

    It is free.

  36. Thanks Phil and everyone for the kind words of support for ISS Wave.

    @Heather @Christian, and any others who are confused about how ISS Wave works, or where and when to look for ISS passes, I humbly suggest you visit our home page, http://www.isswave.org , not just the map page. We’ve tried to lay out explicit, step-by-step instructions on how to participate including links to several external satellite prediction services. In the end, this is a spontaneous, twitter-based, all-volunteer effort that we put together in six short weeks, so maybe cut us a little slack? We invite feedback and questions on twitter, http://twitter.com/isswave

    @Mike Saunders I would just add to scibuff’s remarks that we have endeavored to make this as international as possible but the fact that this campaign is a) coordinated on Twitter and b) in English mean that the demographics of our participants are necessarily going to reflect those two things.

    @QuietDesperation Come on, the waving is fun and it connects you to other people waving, which is the whole point. And for children and other newcomers to ISS watching, it helps hit home that it’s not just another satellite, there are people up there.

  37. It came. I saw. I waved. I felt just a bit silly, but always enjoy seeing the ISS.

    It’s a rare clear night here so I’m alternating going out to look at the stars and coming in to warm up.

  38. Matt B.

    Kind of a weird version of the typical UFO story: I once knew someone who thought that she was seeing the ISS at the same place in the sky every evening for a month or so. I had to explain that she was seeing Venus, and the fact that it stayed fairly still in the sky for hours meant it couldn’t be the ISS. I held my own little Bad Astronomy session. :D

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »