Have you ever seen the International Space Station?

The International Space Station is a gigantic space base, the largest artificial object in space, and there are people on board! Real actual people, all the time. Ever since the year 2000 it has been continuously occupied, with anywhere from 3 to 10 people.

It zips around the earth, 350 kilometers above the ground. It moves so quickly (about 30,000 kilometers per hour) that there is no gravity (well, only a tiny bit of gravity) and it completely orbits the Earth 15 times a day (once every 92 minutes... in the time it takes you to watch a movie, that station goes right around the Earth!)

And one of the best things about it is that when the conditions are right, you can see it very clearly from Earth, without using a telescope or binoculars. The best time to see it is just after sunset, when the sky is getting dark but the ISS is up high enough to still catch the sunlight. It can appear far brighter than any other star. It travels from one side of the sky to the other quite quickly, in about 5 minutes.

My 6 year old daughter told me last night, "When I grow up I'm going to be an artist or a scientist, and if I'm a scientist I might get to go up on the ISS." (My ten year old said "Oh suuuure" because she's currently studying for her masters in sarcasm, which some very talented kids receive by age 13).

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If you want to see the ISS for yourself, these are the steps:

  1. Sign up at Spot the Station — and NASA will email you every time viewing conditions are favorable from your location.

  2. Get a smartphone App such as SkyView (SkyView on Apple Appstore, SkyView on Google Play store) which helps you locate astronomical bodies.

  3. When you receive an email from Spot the Station create a reminder to tell you when to go check the sky. For example you might receive an email at 08:00 telling you the ISS will be visible at 19:00 that night. So immediately set a reminder for 18:55, to make sure you don't forget.

  4. At the appropriate time, head outside, and use your app (such as SkyView) to locate the ISS.

  5. Be amazed and filled with awe.

By the way, even if you don't do any of the other steps, you should check out SkyView (SkyView on Apple Appstore, SkyView on Google Play store). It's very handy being able to locate planets, stars etc, and you learn a lot.

And here's an example of the email you get from NASA. It's so succinct that if you don't remember signing up you won't realize what it's talking about:

From: HQ-spotthestation@mail.nasa.gov
26 Oct (1 day ago)
to: me 
Time: Wed Oct 26 7:15 PM, Visible: 6 min, Max Height: 88°, Appears: 11° above NW, Disappears: 15° above SE
 

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