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A clear sky offers visions of flickering stars, steady planets, occasional bursts of meteors, the changing moon. But skywatchers also can view satellites gliding overhead in orbit, and there are numerous apps and websites that specify exactly when and where to look.
Some also tell you where the International Space Station is over the world and show you what the astronauts aboard are seeing at that very moment.
Built by Boeing and launched Nov. 20, 1998, the ISS has its own crew. It's the largest artificial body in orbit and travels 250 miles above Earth's surface at just over 17,000 miles per hour. That means it circles the planet approximately once every hour and a half.
If you look in the right direction at the right time, the ISS is hard to miss. It is 239 feet long, 356 feet wide, and 66 feet high. It weighs almost a million pounds. From the ground, it looks like a very bright star moving quickly overhead. Magnitude-wise, it exceeds Venus in brightness - only the sun and moon are brighter.
My favorite way to track the ISS is a free smartphone app called Satellite Flybys. It has info on the orbits of several other satellites, too, but none are nearly as bright as ISS. It'll tell you when the ISS will pass over your location, including the cardinal direction and exact time (down to the second), that it rises above the horizon and transits overhead, as well as its maximum elevation at transit.
According to the app, the ISS will pass over New London tomorrow evening, Dec. 9, around 6:30 p.m. It'll rise in the west-southwest at 6:26 and 29 seconds, becoming visible over the trees soon after.
It will reach its highest point, 37.4 degrees above the horizon, at 6:29 and 49 seconds before setting in the south-southwest. Its magnitude will be a blazing -2.8. If clouds ruin tomorrow, or you can't see it, refer to the list below to keep track of future ISS appearances. (You can also sign up to get text notifications when the ISS is about to pass over your location.)
Thirty-seven degrees isn't that high in a place where trees block the horizon. But the lack of leaves may make that a non-issue and it may very well clear the treetops anyway. So after dinner, get outside and look.
Some ISS trackers: spaceweather.com/flybys (website and app); www.isstracker.com; spotthestation.nasa.gov; iss.astroviewer.net.
Dec. 13 and 14: Geminids meteor shower peaks. This is a big one, producing up to 120 multicolored meteors per hour at its peak. The shower runs annually from Dec. 7 to 17. The waxing gibbous moon will block out some of the meteors this year, but the Geminids are so bright and numerous that it should still be a good show. Best viewing will be from a
dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Gemini, but can appear anywhere in the sky.
Dec. 17: Full moon.
Dec. 21: December solstice. Earth’s South Pole will be tilted toward the sun, which will have reached its southernmost position in the sky relative to Earth. This is the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of summer in the Southern
Dec. 21 and 22: Ursids meteor shower peaks. The Ursids is a minor meteor shower producing only about five to 10 meteors per hour produced by dust grains left behind by comet Tuttle. The shower runs annually from Dec. 17 to 25. This year the second quarter moon will be bright enough to hide all but
the brightest meteors. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper), but can appear anywhere in the sky.