Six humans are spending Christmas in space this year. Will all the solar panels reflecting the sun, the International Space Station can become the brightest object in the sky for a few minutes after the sun goes down. Here is how to learn where and when to see it go by.
Step 1: Heavens Above
Heavens-above.com is an easy-to-use website that tracks visible space objects like satellites and comets. It is important to enter your location since your position on earth effects when and where the object is visible to you. It doesn't need to be precise, so can select the largest city near you. Since the station's orbit is inclined about 52 degree, you must be within the latitude range of -52 to 52 degrees to see it, which luckily is most of us.
Step 2: When and Where?
Once you have your location entered, it is time to see when and where the station will pass. With any luck, you will have one (or more) passes tonight and the weather cooperates. There can be periods where there are no visible passes for a week.
The table give you the basic information of where and when to see the pass. For this pass you will need to face North and look for it to pass West to East in an arc that reaches 35 degrees above the horizon. For a more detailed view, which may be helpful on your first sighting, click on the date.
Step 3: Be There or Be Square
A detailed map of the path of the object is available to help you locate it. It is basically a star chart with the object path plotted on it. The important thing to remember is that the outer edge of the circle represents the horizon, so if you need to look North for the object, as in this example, you need to invert the map for it to be in the correct orientation. The other critical thing is the time. Be sure your clock is correct, as being a few minutes late will be the difference between seeing it or just standing in the dark scratching your head. I like to set my alarm to go off five minutes before the pass to allow me time to get outside and let my eyes adjust to the dark.
That is it! Good luck. Once you have spotting the ISS down, try something a little harder like an Iridium flare which are shorter but can be much brighter! Amaze you friends on campouts.