By Duncan Steel 01/10/2019

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Currently there are nine astronauts in orbit, passing a bit more than 400 km above our heads several times a day. If you would like to watch the Space Station in New Zealand’s skies, there are several opportunities this next week, so long as you don’t mind getting up reasonably early, before sunrise. 

Just at the moment it’s fairly crowded on the International Space Station, as the photo below indicates; and for a different photo of the nine smiling astronauts, see here.

The nine astronauts/cosmonauts currently on board the International Space Station; three will return to Earth on Thursday. Photo courtesy NASA.

The reason for the large complement now in orbit is that last week a Russian Soyuz rocket was sent aloft carrying three new crew, and for a week the number aboard is bolstered until two longer-term inhabitants (plus the United Arab Emirates astronaut sent up on last week’s launch) descend back to the surface on Thursday, all being well.

The American astronaut who arrived on the Space Station last week is Jessica Meir. At the head of this post is a photograph of the launch of the capsule carrying Meir, taken from the Space Station by her fellow NASA astronaut Christina Koch. Both Meir and Koch are scheduled to return to Earth next February, by which time the latter will have set a record for the longest mission in space by a female astronaut, 328 days.

Normally the crew of the Space Station numbers three to six, and this is the first time in four years that there has been as many as nine on board at the same time. The all-time record, however, is 13, set a decade ago; that was when the Space Shuttle was still flying, carrying up to seven astronauts.

Let’s imagine that you’d like to see the Space Station in the sky, whizzing far overhead at a speed of about 27,600 kph. It happens that it’s an easy object to spot, so long as you know where to look, and when: you need to have a clear, dark sky, with the orbiting laboratory still in sunlight, meaning soon after sunset or shortly before sunrise. To view it from NZ, the geometry also needs to be right: typically, from any spot the Space Station is visible in sequences either in the late evening or the early morning, the sequences lasting seven to ten days, following which it might be another thirty days before a new sequence begins.

Well, everyone in New Zealand has such opportunities over the next week or so. If you would like to get detailed information, then one source is the wonderful Heavens-Above website, where you can enter your geographical location and then get data telling you where to look, and when. Alternatively, here is the NASA Spot the Station website.

What I have done is to enter Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin as locations, and then tabulated some of the output information below. For each of those four cities I give the date and time at which the Space Station will appear in the pre-dawn sky (generally coming from the west and moving eastwards), the duration (i.e. how long it will be visible before it dips too low in the east), the brightness, and the direction in which it will first appear (that is, the place in the sky to look at the time designated).

The brightness I have coded using a star-system. Really, anybody with normal eyesight should be able to see the Space Station: you do not need a telescope, or binoculars, or any other aid (though you might like to take your sunglasses off). The brightest star in the night sky (Sirius) would get two stars in my coding, and four stars corresponds to how bright Venus ever appears. (Venus can currently be seen low in the western sky soon after sunset.)

So, the Space Station should be visible to all, just so long as you get out of bed early enough. It looks much the same as a bright, high-flying jetliner, though it is far higher, taking several minutes to cross the sky as it seems to move between the stars.

I encourage everyone to go take a look. Especially encouraged are parents with children over the age of five or six: point it out to them, and explain that there are currently nine women and men on board; and that perhaps one day it will be them flying through space, and exploring the solar system.