I LOVE astronomy. It all started when my mom rented me Space Camp from our local video store about 30 years ago. I became absolutely obsessed with that movie. As a junior in high school, I figured out how to enroll in our local community college so I could take Intro to Astronomy over the summer. That’s why I was SO EXCITED when my 8 year old recently said he wanted to learn more about “planets and stuff.” Last night, my kids and I had such a great time spotting the International Space Station.
Of course, I started our summer of astronomy fun with a family viewing of Space Camp. (Seriously, how is that movie not more popular?) I was instantly transported back to my 8 year old self, aware that the plot was far-fetched, but loving it nonetheless. My own kids were riveted. Personally, I think it is a fantastic family movie (but be aware that there is at least one use of the word “shit” and a reference to big hands that had my husband and I glancing at each other). Thankfully, the “mature” content went over my kids heads. They loved it.
To study space, we’ve also watched some Magic School Bus episodes related to planets and meteors and a couple episodes of Cosmos on Netflix. Each night my kids and I go outside and spend about 10 minutes looking at the sky before bed. We started out observing the moon every day so that we would know if it was waxing or waning. My older 2 kids can now reliably find the Big Dipper, Jupiter, Mars, sometimes the Little Dipper if it’s dark enough, and the stars Polaris, Arcturus, and Vega. We use the app, SkyView Free, to check that we’ve identified correctly. In that app, you can ask it to tell you where the International Space Station (ISS) and other fun things are.
Every night over the past couple weeks, my son has been disappointed that the ISS is never in view. I remembered that once while we were camping several years ago, my husband thought he saw the International Space Station, a bright light arching across the sky. I was skeptical it was actually the space station and not a plane or other satellite. When we got home the next day, I looked it up. He was right. The ISS had been predicted to cross over the sky in our area at about 9:30 pm, the exact time my husband had spotted it.
When my son became fixated on spotting the International Space Station, I knew it was a wish I could make happen. Unfortunately, in the near future all the viewing windows near us were at around 4 in the morning. To my kids, I think the middle-of-the-night aspect made the whole adventure more appealing.
This morning, I woke my 6 and 8 year olds up at 4:15 am and we went outside with blankets and flashlights. The space station was supposed to be visible from 4:23 to 4:26 am. At 4:26 am, I told my kids, “I’m sorry, guys. I guess we missed it. I don’t know what happened. Maybe the moon is too bright tonight or something.”
Just then, my 8 year old yelled, “There it is!!!” He was right. It was about 3 minutes later than I expected, but we were able to watch the bright light traverse across the sky. There is no way we could have missed it. Now that we’ve spent the past couple weeks looking at planes and smaller satellites, I understand how my husband knew it was the ISS on that camping trip all those year ago.
“There are people in there, you know,” I said to my kids. “Really?” asked my 6 year old, skeptically. Yep, it’s mind-blowing for me too, kid. If you’re looking for a resource to learn more about the ISS with your kindergarten or elementary-aged kids, my family enjoyed poring over the 4 page spread on the International Space Station in the Big Book of Rockets and Spacecraft.
Recommended Age Range: Preschool, Kindergarten, Elementary, Middle School, High School
Time Required: ~15 minutes (unfortunately, this will almost certainly cut into your kids sleeping time)
- A computer to use NASA’s Spot the Station website
- An alarm clock (if you need to wake up early in the morning, though in some places, it might be visible after sunset instead of before sunrise)
- Flashlights (to reduce light pollution, don’t turn on any outdoor lights)
- Jackets (unless you live somewhere that it’s warm at night)
- Shoes (you don’t want to be hunting for them in the middle of the night)
- Blanket (if you’ll be sitting on the ground)
- Compass (optional, but you’ll want to at least have a general idea of the directions)
- Smartphone (optional, we didn’t use one during our viewing, but an app like SkyView Free will tell you exactly where the ISS is)
- Go to the website, NASA’s Spot the Station.
- Click on the magnifying glass on the map.
- Type in your location. The map should take you to your area. You want to find the blue pin closest to your exact location. Yellow circles are basically blue pins that are so close together they’ve been combined, but you can click on them to see the individual blue pins.
- Once you’ve clicked on the blue pin closest to you, click the link called “View Sighting Opportunities.”
- Now you get to analyze your opportunities. There are 3 things to take into consideration. One is the Date column which lists the viewing time. Personally, as a night owl, I would prefer an evening viewing to an early morning viewing, but that wasn’t an option for my family in the foreseeable future. The second is the Visible column which lists how many minutes the Space Station will be visible. Longer is typically better as it decreases the chances of missing it. The third consideration is the Max Height. This basically specifies how high in the sky the Space Station will get. Higher is better, since it decreases the chances that your view will be obstructed by houses, trees, and anything else that might be in the way.
We chose this morning to view the ISS because the duration was the longest it would be in the near future and the maximum height was 47 degrees, which was considerably higher than many of the other opportunities.
- Now that you’ve chosen a date and time, you need to figure out which way to look. The Appears column tells you which direction the ISS will appear and the Disappears column tells you which direction it is headed. You can use a compass if you are not sure. For us, the ISS appeared in the west and headed towards NNE.
- The night before you plan to view the ISS, you have some planning to do. Set an alarm if needed. Plan to be outside and observing at least 5 to 10 minutes before the expected pass. We were lucky in that the ISS passed 3 minutes after the expected time. If it had passed 3 minutes before, we probably would have missed it, because I wasn’t expecting the timing to be off at all.
- Especially if you will be waking up in the middle of the night, gather all your supplies before you go to bed. Put yours and your kids’ jackets and shoes together with a blanket to sit on and some flashlights. You don’t want to turn on any outdoor lights when you go outside to keep your eyes adjusted to the dark.
- About 15 minutes before the pass, make sure everyone is awake and getting their shoes and jackets on.
- Head outside, set up your blanket, and lay down to view the stars.
- Monitor the whole path the ISS is expected to take, keeping an especially close watch on the “Appear” direction.
- Be patient! I was ready to give up and go inside when my son suddenly spotted the ISS.
Have fun viewing the International Space Station!
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