TERRE HAUTE —
It’s not a bird or a plane – it’s an orbiting science lab.
The International Space Station has been visible to the naked eye for several nights in a row and will continue to be for another 10 evenings this month, as it cruises across the Wabash Valley night sky about 300 miles overhead.
The station orbits the earth non-stop, but becomes this visible only in specific locations once in a while. Between now and Oct. 25, each night will provide opportunities for a short glimpses – usually lasting just a minute or two – of the orbiting laboratory. Because it is visible only when reflecting sunlight, the station can be seen either shortly before sunrise or within a couple of hours after sunset.
“It’s pretty fun to watch,” said Howard Brooks, DePauw University professor of physics and astronomy. “It’ll look bright like an airplane, but you won’t see the red and green flashing lights beside it … and you won’t hear anything.”
Brooks, who has worked extensively with NASA, watched the space station pass overhead last week. “Friday night’s [viewing] was beautiful,” he said.
Elizabeth Melton, a junior from Goodrich, Mich. studying at Rose-Hulman and president of the Rose astronomy club, shares Brooks’ enthusiasm. She saw the station for the first time ever last Tuesday night, and her club members gathered to watch it as a group on Thursday night.
“It’s very fast-moving, very bright,” Melton said. “It looks just like a very bright star that moves across the sky.” Some members of the club brought binoculars to watch the station, Melton said, but it is easier to follow it with the naked eye, she said.
“It moves really fast,” she said. “It was awesome.”
The station, which travels about 17,500 mph, will be visible tonight in the Terre Haute area for about four minutes starting at 7:45 p.m. It will appear about 14 degrees above the northwest horizon. It will travel in an arc up to a maximum height of 18 degrees over the horizon before dropping back down and disappearing in the north-northeast.
“It will be right on the money,” Brooks said. “You can test how accurate your watch is.”
NASA provides a website with the latest sighting opportunities for the space station on its website, spotthestation.nasa.gov. It shows folks in Terre Haute will have between one and five minutes each evening between now and Oct. 25 to view the station. Most nights the station will be fairly low on the horizon, but on Oct. 24 it will reach 35 degrees and be visible for two minutes. On Oct. 25 it will be visible for five minutes and reach a maximum height of 28 degrees.
Of course, to see the space station, it’s got to be a clear night without lots of clouds and it helps to be away from tall objects that might obscure the horizon, such as trees or buildings.
The International Space Station is a cooperative effort between the U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency. There are typically six astronauts on board. In 2015, the U.S. and Russia are each considering sending people to live aboard the station for an entire year. Congress has approved funding for the station through 2020.
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.