It was about 7 p.m. on a recent clear evening — dark already — and we were out in the side yard, staring upward.
“Here it comes!” Douglas called, pointing. And right on cue, the International Space Station appeared over the the row of red spruce trees at the edge of our field. It was easy to spot: a steady, golden light moving swiftly and silently across the night sky. It rose in the northwest and disappeared about three minutes later over the northeastern horizon.
We waved and called our salutations. I would have felt sad to see it go, except I knew it would come again soon. And in fact, this morning I received the next SpotTheStation notification from NASA in my email inbox. Short and sweet, here’s what it said:
Time: Mon Oct 19 7:12 PM, Visible: 4 min, Max Height: 58°, Appears: 12° above NW, Disappears: 41° above E
That means the ISS will come zipping over Sandy Point again tonight and set behind Verona Island. I intend to be there to see it.
The space station is the largest artificial object in the night sky and is easy to see without the use of binoculars or a telescope. Traveling at about 17,000 mph, it orbits the blue-green Earth about 16 times a day, or once every 93 minutes, at an altitude of about 250 miles. You can easily sign up to get an email from NASA, as I do, alerting you to when the station will be in your neighborhood.
Space agencies of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada operate the space station — a remarkably complex bit of political cooperation in the name of scientific progress. The first modules were launched from Russia in 1998; subsequent modules have been delivered by Russian rockets and NASA’s space shuttles. The station has been continuously occupied for almost 15 years, the longest continuous human presence in space. Astronauts come and go, along with scientific instrumentation, laboratory mice, food supplies and other necessities.
Six astronauts from the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and Japan make up the current crew, led by Commander Scott Kelly of New Jersey. Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko have been aboard the ISS since March and will stay a full year before they return, twice as long as a typical mission. The purpose of their extended stay is to shed light on how the human body reacts to a long-duration spaceflight, information that will help scientists devise ways to reduce risks on future missions into deep space, including, someday, a manned mission to Mars.
It thrills me that the International Space Station passes so quietly over my raspberry patch every few days. NASA invites me out to see it; the least I can do it pull on a sweater, step out my back door and look up.