By Duncan Steel 04/03/2019

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As I write, the Dragon capsule – a spacecraft intended to loft US astronauts into orbit – has been docked with the Space Station for almost 18 hours on its initial test flight. It happens that you will be able to see the station plus capsule passing over New Zealand each evening for the next week or so, before the Dragon detaches to return to Earth on Saturday. 

The International Space Station (ISS) is visible again from throughout New Zealand, but now it is slightly brighter than previously because it currently has the new SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule docked with it.

If you were to visit the NASA website that deals with the International Space Station, at the moment the latest news reads as follows:

SpaceX Crew Dragon Successfully Docks to Station

After making 18 orbits of Earth since its launch early Saturday morning, the Crew Dragon spacecraft successfully attached to the International Space Station’s Harmony module forward port via ‘soft capture’ at 5:51 a.m. EST  [Sunday 23:51 NZDT] while the station was traveling more than 250 miles [400 km] over the Pacific Ocean, just north of New Zealand. 

I guess that most of us in NZ were asleep at the time, unaware of what was happening not so far away, though various TV feeds carried the action live to space enthusiasts.

Left: Blast-off of the first Crew Dragon test mission from Cape Canaveral on Saturday March 2nd. Right: The Dragon capsule in its hangar prior to launch. (Courtesy SpaceX.)

Recently I wrote a blog in which were tabulated sets of times at which the ISS could easily be seen between February 19th and 28th from a variety of points in NZ. In a follow-up post I explained how and why the ISS is so easy to spot as it passes overhead. It happens that the ISS has just started another series of opportunities for kiwis to see it in the evening, after the Sun has set but whilst the ISS itself is still bathed in sunlight, making it an obvious moving object in the night sky, often brighter than any star. These opportunities occur generally either once or twice (the second time on the following ISS orbit, and so about 97 minutes later) each evening over the next 7-10 days, dependent on where you are in NZ.

The Dragon capsule as it approaches the ISS to dock (from NASA TV).

If you would like to see the ISS – and I’d hope that everyone will be tempted to take a peak – it is straightforward to discover when and where to look from any particular location. Previously I wrote the following, and simply repeat the text here so as to indicate where on the web to go and obtain information about ISS visibility from wherever you happen to be:

The calculations were made using the Heavens-Above website, and I also mentioned a NASA website from which email alerts can be obtained automatically, telling you when the ISS can be seen from your location… [also, there is] a website from which a smartphone app can be downloaded and ISS viewing opportunities obtained.

NASA astronaut Anne McClain (one of the three crew currently aboard the ISS) pictured earlier today (Monday March 4th NZDT) inside the Dragon capsule docked with the Space Station. Over her left shoulder, clad in white, is an instrumented dummy astronaut named Ripley, for the character played by Sigourney Weaver in the ‘Alien’ movies. Frame grab from NASA TV.

Addendum (2019 March 05): A 15-minute video of the Crew Dragon docking is available here. It is interesting to watch the attitude/location control thrusters briefly firing every few seconds as the module gets closer to the ISS.