Wanna see the space station overhead? NASA will send you mail!

By Phil Plait | November 7, 2012 10:16 am

Seeing the International Space Station pass overhead is pretty cool. It glides soundlessly across the sky, getting brighter as it gets closer to you, whizzing by hundreds of kilometers above your head at 8 kilometers per second.

I usually go to Heavens-Above when I think of it to check when the next few passes will be. But wouldn’t it be nice if you get a text or email letting you know that a pass is about to happen?

NASA has set up a service to do just that: Spot The Station. You can give it your email or phone number, your location, and whether you’d like to see evening passes, morning ones, or both (because the station is lit by the Sun, you can only see it just after sunset or before sunrise).

That’s all there is to it. The next time the station is going to be visible from your location, NASA will send you a note. They also have a page describing what the message means, so you can go outside and figure out not just when to look, but where.

I’ll note there’s another service that does this as well: Twisst, which uses Twitter to let you know about good station passes at your location. It would be fun to compare them, actually. And useful, because they may have different criteria for what constitutes a good viewing opportunity. If you want to see the station, it might pay to hedge your bet.

And don’t forget to try to take a picture! The shot above is one I took a few years ago with nothing more than an off-the-shelf point-and-shoot camera set up on a tripod in my back yard. There are two streaks because one (on the right) is the station, and the other is the Space Shuttle Atlantis! I can guarantee you can’t get that shot again, but we do send other spacecraft to the station, so if you time it right you might get something like this. If you don’t try, it’s a sure thing you never will, so give it a shot!

Related Posts:

Watch the skies for the Shuttle and ISS
And I saw a star rising in… the WEST?
SERIOUSLY jaw-dropping pictures of Endeavour and the ISS!
Ridiculously awesome pic of Discovery and the ISS taken from the ground!


Comments (15)

  1. Ted Hartley

    This is awesome!!! Thanks Phil

  2. Marisel


    I saw the ISS once here over Puerto Rico. It was very exiting!!! It would be nice to receive an email reminding me when it will be in our sky.



  3. This is how i capture it…Just caught the first of Nov. 2012, Florida passes


  4. Sam H

    Holy damn that shot is beautiful!! How far apart were they at the time, I wonder?? (There’s obviously math for this, but I dunno what it is, and Math is a pain as is).

  5. hmmm, nearest city I can pick here, in Spain, is 150km away. Wonder if that would work.
    Think I´ll stick to heavens-above.
    And btw that´s a hell of a shot, those two streaks.

  6. A friend spotted Dragon with the ISS recently.

    Could we get email only when it’s locally clear? That would cut down on my inbox load.

  7. stuart

    I would give it a go but since moving to 61degrees North my chances of seeing it are slim at best :-(
    When I lived in the UK it was easy to see and a great sight to impress people with!

  8. Gus Snarp

    I remember reading on this blog a couple of years ago that a really good pass was coming up, I checked Heavens Above, went out, and saw the space station with the shuttle attached fly by overhead. It was pretty amazing to see this incredibly bright thing appear, streak across the sky, and then disappear. What’s fun is that now that I’ve seen it a couple of times on purpose, I know what to look for so sometimes I’ll be outside taking out the trash or walking the dog and I’ll look up, as I like to do, and happen to see this bright light streaking across the sky. After a few moments of observation I can rule out meteors and aircraft and I know I’m watching the ISS. By pure dumb luck. I take great joy in going to Heavens Above when I get back inside and verifying my sighting. Thanks for giving me these moments.

  9. Other Dan

    I’m in a small town in Northern California and Twisst works quite well for me – you don’t have to pick from a list of major cities (e.g., picking San Francisco off a list would work for me only intermittently owing to how far north of SF I am). Rather, Twisst takes your listed location on your Twitter profile and converts to coordinates. It sends me an @ message when there’s going to be a good visible pass and leaves me alone when there’s not.

  10. The fact that, as commenter SkyGazer mentioned above, the website has a limited selection of viewing locations is a pretty severe limitiation of this tool as compared to heavens-above.com, in my opinion. I use Twisst and Heavens-above.com. Once you get in the habit of checking every day, it’s not a big deal. The NASA iphone app also already gave predictions, making email alerts unnecessary.

    Two technical points for your post above: first, ISS does not always get brighter as it gets closer, and I think your characterization of needing to look close to sunrise and sunset is a bit misleading. ISS can be visible up to 2 hours or so before or after sunrise/set, if conditions are right. If you are viewing one of the later passes after sunset, ISS will brighten initially as it comes into view over the horizon and after it gets out of the thick atmosphere, but it may quickly fade out of sight as it gets close to you because it is passing into Earth’s shadow.

    – Ben H.
    Mission Control, TX

  11. carbonUnit

    Nice idea, but those morning alerts will probably arrive when I’m sleeping. Not too useful. They could probably use some more options. Perhaps a digest of several days at a time. A way to set up calendar events might be useful.

    I have, on several occasions submitted “ISS flyby wakeup songs” to a local radio station. (In fact, there are some good opportunities coming up next week, weather permitting…) I’ve also gotten a local weatherman to note a particularly good overflight. NASA’s service might be just the thing for weathercasters who need a little extra material on otherwise uninteresting clear mornings & evenings. I wonder how many members of the public see ISS without realizing what it is… It is indeed a delight to see it unexpectedly.

    The double track picture is really neat. I’ve only seen that on a couple of occasions. (Too often the clouds got in the way. That was very frustrating as the last flights went up.) The neatest thing was when it was late enough that they went into shadow, like bright stones dropping one after the other into a pitch black pond. I’m pleased to see that Dragon can be spotted with ISS. It has always been cloudy here, so far.

    I’ve had the experience of seeing the ISS approach the horizon and suddenly get very bright, as if a low flying jet suddenly turned on its landing lights. I’m thinking that as it got way down range, the solar panels caught the sun and reflected it back. Rather impressive given that I’m in SW Ohio and ISS was probably over the Carolinas…

  12. Jason

    This past summer I hauled my 6in telescope to my parents farm every other weekend (it aways turned out to be cloudy it seemed) to “alien hunt” with my son who is 7.

    We didnt find any secret moon bases, but see the ISS pass overhead – he plotzzed! and for the next month told everyone we met about watching the space station go by.

  13. Funz

    There is also a nice free Android app that will remind you any ISS pass or Iridium flare above your current location: ISS Detector (takes the data from heavensabove, anyway)

  14. Ed

    @twISSt does a good job with this. They’ve been on Twitter for years, and have worked out most kinks.


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