Where Is the International Space Station?

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The International Space Station (ISS) has represented a wonder of science and technology from the moment it was constructed. In the over two decades the station has been operative, it has gained popularity.

The ISS remains the largest human-made structure in space today. In fact, it is so large and bright that it can be seen from Earth’s surface. But if you want to spot the station, you’ll need the answer to one crucial question: Where is the International Space Station right now?

This article will tell you everything about the location of the ISS and ways to track its movement.

Where Is the International Space Station?

The ISS orbits the Earth at around 250 miles or 400 kilometers. Of course, orbiting means that the station is constantly changing locations, and it does so at tremendous speed.

It only takes the ISS about an hour and a half to circle our planet, moving at 17,500 mph. The station could reach the moon and return to Earth within a day. To put this speed into perspective, the ISS is roughly 10 times faster than an average bullet and around 60 times faster than the world’s fastest car.

Due to its high speed, it can be hard to determine where the ISS is at any given moment. Luckily, the station’s orbit around Earth is relatively precise and repeatable.

Every time the ISS goes around the globe, it follows a west-to-east trajectory with 51.6 degrees of orbital inclination. This path would form a sinusoidal curved line rising towards the northern hemisphere and declining towards the south on the second part of the journey when projected on a flat map of the world.

The next time the ISS passes, it would follow the same shape, but the entire pattern would shift westward by about 30 degrees longitude. Simply put, the station moves about 1,300 miles to the west each time it orbits the planet. Every individual path repeats after three days.

Orbital shifts in the movement of the ISS happen due to the boosts that the station receives to maintain height. Without these boosts, the atmospheric drag and gravitation would cause the ISS to lose altitude. At the same time, the shifts make the station’s movement somewhat less uniform.

Considering all the variables, it might be hard to imagine how people can track the ISS and spot it in the sky. However, this is possible because the station’s movement is closely monitored. While the exact position is hard to calculate by DIY math, there are services dedicated to following the station across every mile of its journey.

Viewing the International Space Station

Anyone wishing to track the ISS or get an opportunity to see it can use some handy tools to determine the best time to look to the sky.

Essentially, spotting the International Space Station will be a matter of looking up at the right place and time. The first resource that can help you in that regard is NASA’s Spot the Station website.

This site shows where the ISS will be visible at certain times of the day. You can use the website to look up your town and find out every detail about the station’s flyover. The available info includes the time and date when the ISS can be seen, how long it will remain visible, how high it will be, and where the station will appear and disappear.

The Spot the Station site also houses other helpful information regarding the station and how to view it, including a detailed explanation of the provided visibility data. You can even sign up to receive an alert when the station is in sight.

Finally, NASA’s site links the live map tracking the ISS, courtesy of the European Space Agency.

space station

Seeing the station shouldn’t be an issue, at least in the night sky if you’re in the right spot at the right time. The ISS can outshine Venus, making it easily visible. You won’t need a telescope or other equipment to spot it.

The critical aspect of viewing the ISS is to get the coordinates right. Fortunately, this is much more straightforward than it might seem. All you’ll need to do is determine the direction and the height.

For example, you might read that the station will be visible at 20 degrees above SE. This means it will be in the southeast at 20 degrees of height.

Determining the compass direction shouldn’t be very difficult. For example, you can find the right side of the world simply by following the sunset, which will always be roughly in the west. Or, even more conveniently, you could use a real compass or download a compass app on your phone.

When it comes to height, this is also uncomplicated. Degrees refer to the angle relative to the horizon, and there’s a surprisingly easy method to approximate the correct angle without any tools:

While standing towards the horizon, clench your hand into a fist. Then, stretch the arm in front of you fully so your fist is at shoulder height. Make sure your fist is rotated so that your thumb is facing upwards.

Funnily enough, the height of your fist will be more or less equal to 10 degrees when held in that position. Using your fist as a measurement, you can easily measure the angle. In our example, the ISS should be visible at two fist heights in the southeast.

You should have no issues spotting the ISS using the mentioned tools and simple methods. However, it’s worth noting that the station will never appear further south or north of the equator than 51.6 degrees. In other words, you won’t be able to see it if you live in Alaska.

If you can see the station, it will appear similar to an airplane but move much faster across the sky.

Who Owns the International Space Station?

The ISS isn’t a conventional piece of property. Rather than a single owner, the station represents a collaboration of five space agencies: NASA, Roscosmos, ESA, JAXA, and CSA.

NASA is, of course, a U.S. agency. Roscosmos is Russian, JAXA Japanese, CSA Canadian, and ESA is the European Space Agency. Every participant in the project has contributed to the station by providing different modules and funding.

The actual ownership of the ISS is subject to international agreements. The station is divided into the Russian Orbital Segment and the United States Orbital Segment. The former contains six Russian-made modules and is used by Roscosmos, while the latter has 10 modules made by NASA, ESA, JAXA, and CSA.

The space station is frequently inhabited by astronauts and sometimes visited by space tourists. The makeup of the people who’ve gone to the ISS is as international as the station’s ownership, counting visitors from 20 nations.

While the station has a complicated question of ownership, the owners of individual elements of the ISS are a bit easier to determine.

According to the agreement reached by the five agencies, each agency controls any registered elements and ISS personnel who are the respective state’s nationals. However, the complications here appear regarding the European Space Agency.

Despite being a single entity in the ISS agreement, the ESA doesn’t belong to a single state. Instead, it consists of numerous member states.

What’s the Purpose of the International Space Station?

The ISS doesn’t merely represent a marvel of engineering. It’s also a unique laboratory—the only one on (or around) Earth that functions in microgravity.

Vital research occurs on the station with experiments that can be performed without the influence of gravity. The research conducted at the ISS covers various fields, including physics, astronomy, meteorology, and astrobiology.

Perhaps even more importantly, the station is an ideal proving ground for technology. Space equipment and systems are tested in the most realistic environment possible, making it possible to reach advancements faster.

One of the most interesting experiments aboard the ISS involves the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a module intended for particle physics research. The module can measure antimatter and possibly detect hypothetical dark matter.

Finally, the station provides an excellent opportunity to observe how the human body reacts to conditions in space. This includes gathering data on fluid shift, bone loss, and muscle atrophy. The resulting information might greatly help determine the viability of extended human spaceflight and the possibility of colonizing other celestial bodies.

Tracking the Largest Satellite Ever Made

Losing something the size of a football field might seem like a joke, but not if that something is 250 miles high and moving faster than any other man-made object.

Fortunately, we can track the International Space Station through dedicated online tools and view its motion in real-time. So, with a bit of help, it’s easy to answer the question of where the International Space Station is right now. And once you know more about that shining light in the night sky, the sight becomes more fascinating and meaningful.

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