Good news, space nerds! NASA will forward viewing info to your phone.
This composite of 70 exposures shows the trail of the ISS (with gaps between exposures) as it moved left to right over the city of Tübingen in southern Germany on February 7, 2008. As seen from Tübingen, the passage took about 4 minutes. (Till Credner via NASA)
The International Space Station is, after the sun and the moon, the third brightest object in the sky. If you know where to look for it, you can easily see it -- no telescope required. But: if you know where to look for it. Since the station takes different orbital paths as it circles the planet, its position in the sky at any given moment is hard to know for sure.
You know who always knows where the ISS is, though? NASA. Several times a week, Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston determines sighting opportunities for 4,600 locations worldwide -- places from which the space station is visible for a long distance. Now, NASA is publicizing that list. Spot the Station lets you sign up for email or text-message alerts that will let you know, a few hours before the fact, when the ISS will be passing over your area.
"This service will only notify you of 'good' sighting opportunities, NASA says -- "sightings that are high enough in the sky (40 degrees or more) and last long enough to give you the best view of the orbiting laboratory." That viewing opportunity could come as often as once or twice a week or as rarely as once or twice a month, depending on the Earth's rotation and on sky clarity. (So "don't worry," NASA says, "if there are big gaps in between sightings!")
I just signed up for the service. For Washington, D.C., Spot the Station offered location options down to the neighborhood level. And it allowed me to choose morning or evening sighting opportunities. (I chose both, because why not.) We'll see how well it works. For the moment, though, it's a nice, thoughtful feature: a way to take work that NASA is already doing ... and transform it into public wonder and goodwill.
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