Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Look up for reflected glory

Bright spot: The ISS is the size of a soccer pitch.

Bright spot: The ISS is the size of a soccer pitch.

It sounds like the start of a joke: three Russians, two Americans and an Italian walk into the International Space Station … but they are the actual occupants of the ISS.

Astronauts are an intrepid breed. Recently, for example, the Italian nearly drowned inside his suit during a space walk. Yes, drowned, due to a faulty tank that filled his helmet with water.

Leaving the drama aside, many people don't realise it's possible to see the ISS with the naked eye as it passes overhead. This occurs in short ''seasons'' a few times a year that coincide with our waking hours. The best sightings occur within a couple of hours of sunrise or sunset. At these times, the ISS can be surprisingly bright and will outshine everything in the night sky except the moon. It can also, at times, challenge Venus.

Why can the ISS be viewed so easily? First, its orbit is just 400 kilometres above our heads. Second, in the solar system, only the sun generates light; other bodies shine only because they reflect sunlight. The moon is illuminated this way, and so are the planets and any satellites in orbit around the Earth. With its complement of living modules and enormous array of solar panels, the ISS is the size of a soccer pitch. This gives it a much larger area to reflect sunlight than other satellites, most of which are much smaller.


In the next few days, the ISS will be most prominent and easiest to see on Saturday at 7.35pm, first visible low in the north-west; Sunday in the low north-north-west at 6.46pm; then Monday and Tuesday in the low west-north-west at 7.34pm and 6.44pm, respectively. It usually takes about four or five minutes to fly over. Good luck and clear skies!

An introductory course on astronomy for the public will be run by Perry Vlahos next month. For more info:
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