Discovery and ISS make twin stars in the night sky

By Phil Plait | March 7, 2011 3:00 pm

Earlier today, Discovery undocked from the International Space Station for the last time. It has backed off from the station, and if conditions are right, you might be able to see them as a pair of bright stars moving across the night sky! Universe Today has the scoop, as well as links to see if the pair will be visible from your area.

If you have clear skies and they happen to be visible, you really should check it out. Watching the two bright dots glide silently across the sky is a surreal experience. It’s very easy to photograph as well; here’s a shot I took from my back yard of the ISS and Atlantis from June 2007:

Discovery lands on Wednesday, and this is her final flight… meaning this is literally your last chance to see it together with the space station.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (48)

  1. chris j.

    a year and a half ago, i remember watching the ISS and one of the shuttles on thanksgiving evening in albuquerque. the whole flyover lasted about a minute, and it was a truly amazing spectacle. thanks for the reminder, Phil.

  2. I wonder if Stephen Fry will make another documentary called “Last Chance to See” on this subject? ūüėČ

  3. Gilandune

    Amazing, I would love to see Discovery leave the ISS for the last time.

    The skywatch applet says the Next pass over my area is tonight, but marks the next sighting for friday. Anyone know the difference? (both are at a time when its dark, with good enough elevation to be visible from a high point.)

  4. Gilandune: It might be that the next time is in the middle of the night; you can only see it just before dawn or just after sunset, when there’s some sunlight for it to reflect.

    I recommend following twisst on Twitter to find out when it will be visible.

  5. Keith Bowden

    Hmmm. If the shuttle lands on Wednesday, why does the HSF chart list sightings for Wed, Thu & Fri? :) Auto-oops!

  6. Dr.Sid

    I’ve seen it today from Czech Republic .. what a sight ! For a moment the shuttle softly flared a was a bit brighter then the station itself.

  7. Just caught the fly-by now from my driveway in central Ontario, Canada… perfect conditions… they were about a palm-width apart at arm’s length. The trailing one (Shuttle?) was quite a bit brighter, but both were well bright enough to be prominent even in the still-blue not-quite-dark sky… brighter than any planet, I think… very cool!

  8. hammy

    Just saw them pass 5 minutes ago here in NYC. Amazing.

    edit: here is a picture!

  9. Just saw them flying over the Boston area. Very nice!

  10. Sooooo disappointed that it’s cloudy here in Denver as I actually had planned to watch it this evening. I even set up an alarm to remind me to go out, but as it will likely be precipitating small white hexagonal crystalline structures, I won’t be able to see it. Thanks for the reminder for those who can, though!

  11. Krikkit

    First time I ever saw the ISS many years ago when it was just a tyke with a few modules, Discovery was tracking along behind it


    End of a era

  12. david

    stopped in a parking lot in Ithaca, NY to watch them pass. Perfectly clear and with the ISS at -3.4 they were very visible. Absolutely incredible. It never gets old.

  13. david

    I use to track viewing opportunities. They show a list of just the visible passes but you can also click a link to see all the ISS passes. Very easy for even non-technical people and includes both star and ground track maps to help orient your viewing.

  14. Larry

    Every time I see the ISS I marvel at the majesty of it…the utter silence of the motion, the unhurried pace, the slow fading at the terminator. And tonight, twice as good! Just as Discovery was fading from view a polar orbiting satellite crossed its path…Even in the heart of Boston, the night sky is always a source of wonder.

  15. Dean

    Just got to see the pair with my 3 year old, Sagan. That was very cool.

  16. Matthew

    Thanks for posting this. I saw this and jumped over to and saw it was going to pass in 2 minutes! I ran outside yelling for my family to follow and we had an incredible view. Thanks again!

  17. Jim Atkins

    Just saw them from Twentynine Palms, CA- low on the northern horizon, chasing each other towards the Big Dipper. Goodbye, faithful ship. I will visit you in your new home someday.

  18. JasonTO

    An amazing sight. Something very tranquil about it. Perfect conditions here in Toronto, Ontario, too. The astronomical calendar has been kind to us recently. Enjoyed ideal conditions for the lunar eclipse, as well.

    Which was which though? I figured the brighter, trailing “star” would be the ISS, since it’s the bigger object. But now that I think of it, the more compact structure of the shuttle would provide a more ample surface to reflect light, would it not?

  19. Sure, now you tell me, 4 hours after they passed overhead with a 57-degree elevation.

  20. I got my pics…from a rather light polluted area but easily visible. I even got pics at the end of the pass where you can watch the streaks fade as they pass into Earth’s shadow. Note how the streaks turn reddish as they fade…just like if they were illuminated by a setting Sun.

  21. RobinPA

    So earlier today, my 79 year old father, a NASA engineer from the 1960’s, emails me about the viewing opportunity. I’m driving home around the time of the pass, so I pull over and wait a couple of minutes….and there they are…right on schedule. Just beautiful. Cars are whizzing by me at 65 MPH (105 KPH) and have no idea…it’s like a secret out in the open. Just before the pair reaches the terminator, my phone rings again. It’s my dad, and he is excitedly talking about seeing them, checking the ISS out with his field glasses, and talking about how we will never see this sight again with it being Discovery’s last flight. As I’m listening, first the shuttle, and then the ISS slowly fade to that familiar rust color as they head into the shadow of our planet. I thank my dad again. I pull back into traffic. Can it possibly get any better than this????

  22. podrock

    Lightly snowing, as you know, here in Boulder.

    Saw it once though, unexpectedly, sitting next to a campfire, looking up through the frame of spruce trees on a cool summer night in the Rampart Range. One of those “remember it forever” moments.

  23. @1. chris j. :

    a year and a half ago, i remember watching the ISS and one of the shuttles on thanksgiving evening in albuquerque. the whole flyover lasted about a minute, and it was a truly amazing spectacle. thanks for the reminder, Phil.

    Seconded by me. The last part anyhow – I’ve seen Shuttle /ISS passes from my hometown but not from Albuquerque! :-)

    A NASA link suggests I can view the Shuttle & ISS from Adelaide midnight twelve-thirty to twelve forty earliest morning approx. (Weds.) Pretty sure that’s our time – hope so!

    @2. Larian LeQuella : LOL. :-)

    If he’s going to he’s going to have to make it quickly. Not much time left now. If only folks cared for endangered spacecraft as much as they do endangered wildlife.. Sigh.

    (Think’s of setting up the Royal Society for the Protection of Rare Rockets, realises I can’t use the “Royal” bit & abandons the notion. ūüėČ ]

    Great series that one.

    @15. Dean : Just got to see the pair with my 3 year old, Sagan.

    You named your kid Sagan – for real!?! ūüėģ :-) 8)

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    This link :

    to the NASA Skywatch /Human Spaceflight calculator thingummy being the one in question from which I derived the info. noted above re: Shuttle pass for Adelaide, South Australia if anyone’s curious or finds it helpful. (For my fellow Aussies here.) :-)

  25. Dean

    @Messier Yes, I did. :-)

  26. Levi in NY

    I told my friend that was probably two airplanes we were seeing. Man, I gotta tell her what it was. Wow…

  27. JessNY

    My friend told me they were probably two airplanes. ūüėõ I thought maybe they were satellites witch I have never seen but this is so much better.

  28. I learned about the flyover tonight with 5 minutes to spare before it happened! I ran out with my camera and tripod and managed to snap a few shots of the shuttle Discovery and ISS flying maybe 10 or 15 seconds apart.

    Sadly they are focussed badly and have a lot of vibration (someday I’ll get a remote shutter release), but … From my vantage point, Pitt Meadows BC, on the outskirts of Vancouver, They both passed in front of the Moon! I wasn’t expecting that.

    I didnt even realize I captured the space shuttle as it passed in front of the moon until I looked at the photo later.

    If only I’d had my telescope setup, and had a steadier hand hehe

  29. fred edison

    #7 Robert:
    The smaller and dimmer light was Discovery and it was in the lead. What a spectacular sight it was.

    I don’t think I’ve seen the Space Shuttle & the ISS cruising the sky together, so needless to say, I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed this memorable moment in time.

  30. DanVeteran

    I saw it tonight with my teenage daughter. She thought is was so cool, she posted it on FaceBook. I’m glad she loves science.

  31. I’ve never seen the ISS+Shuttle pass overhead. (And I missed last night’s.) I have, however, seen “sunset on the ISS” on one occasion. It took me a moment to realize what had happened.

  32. Messier Tidy Upper

    Too cloudy – 8/8ths cloud cover here, alas. :-(

    Also, as someone reminded me on email the Earth’s shadow might have been an issue.

  33. Gus Snarp

    Looks like we’ve got a great pass here tonight. Unfortunately we also have heavy clouds. Thanks to you, I have seen them together before, but they were docked so it was only one “star”.

  34. Holy crap!!! I’m outside of Philly and I live only 5 minutes from the Philly International Airport and last night I saw what I thought were 2 airplanes following each other, but it turns out, it was the ISS and the shuttle! I saw them clear as day. My first time ever seeing something like that as well, it was REALLY cool.

  35. Raymond Lang

    Unfortunately, we here in Houston (home of the JSC) will not be able to see the shuttle and the ISS together. Kinda disappointing, although there’s a chance that if Discovery de-orbits on pass 203, it’ll fly over Houston and the Gulf Coast before landing at Kennedy.

    We can hope for the landing pass, that would be a nice thing to see once again.

  36. Björn

    I just saw them pass here in the Netherlands. A majestic sight indeed! And actually the first time a saw a shuttle orbiter…

  37. Peer Stritzinger

    Just watched it in perfect conditions from west of Munich, Bavaria (19:15–19:20 CET)

    The Shuttle had a clearly visible curved coma, probably exhausts from a maneuver.

  38. AndyC

    Saw them both from county Kildare, Ireland last night. Took my daughter out to see the ISS and didn’t realise the shuttle had undocked. Absolutely beautiful and an unexpected pleasure!

  39. @ 37. Peer Stritzinger:
    The tail was due to a waterdump (dump of condensation and waste water), not rocket exhaust.

  40. My images of Shuttle and ISS of this evening (and yesterday evening):

    Taken from Leiden, the Netherlands, in twilight. The sky was still too bright here to see the waterdump.

  41. I just got a good view from Alexandria, VA around 7:24 PM. Which vehicle was which?

  42. Second vehicle (slight amount of camera shake at the beginning)

  43. Just got back from shooting the Discovery-ISS. Barely got ’em both in frame!

  44. Beautiful pass almost directly overhead from here in Greenbelt earlier this evening. Heavens-Above indicated there should be a dramatic difference in brightness, but it didn’t seem that way – Discovery was almost as bright as the station.

  45. @ 41. ultraholland :
    Leading object is the Shuttle.

  46. @Larry, I noticed the polar satellite as well, but wasn’t sure it was a satellite. Now I know; thanks!

  47. Joel

    I got to see the ISS and detached shuttle last year – was an incredible sight. I wasn’t even expecting it either, it just suddenly passed over head, these two lights moving almost in parallel. I thought it must be the ISS and shuttle, (it was in the right part of the sky, right apparent speed and brightness, etc), and when I looked it up, there it was. I feel lucky I’ve got to see it at least once.

  48. G. Bowman

    Saw the ISS and Discovery by quite by accident on Tuesday evening. First ISS “flew” directly into the cup of the Big Dipper and the faded. Moments later the shuttle followed along the same trajectory. It was a beautiful sight. I had just been talking to my friend about the ISS and the times that we saw it last fall. The view was from Oak Island, NC.


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