21 Nov 2013

Happy 15th birthday International Space Station!

The International Space Station (ISS), the bright white light that many of us have dashed outdoors to spot zipping across the night sky, has just turned 15 years old.

Whilst these days it has a team of astronauts aboard, when the first module launched on 20 November 1998, it was uninhabited for two years before a crew lived on it.

These two uninhabited years saw the space station grow in size as new modules built in three continents were added piece by piece – leading to the largest and most complex spacecraft ever constructed.


Commander Chris Hadfield

Even though I’d heard of the ISS a number of years back, my sudden fascination was spurred on by Commander Chris Hadfield – a Canadian astronaut who turned what would normally be considered a geeky fad into something cool and accessible to all.

His endless stream of stunning pictures and factoids that he’d share with us as he circled around the earth once every 90 minutes gave us a perspective of our planet that left us in awe.

It was this sharing of his experience that made us all feel as though we had some kind of connection with the ISS and an obligation to step outside and give him a wave as it raced across the sky at around 17,000mph.

Prior to Commander Hadfield’s return to earth, he made a cover version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity that when viral on You Tube, having 19 million views to date.

How and when to see the ISS

The ISS is only visible for spells of around 10-14 days at a time from any given point of the planet, as its orbital path gently drifts over time.

However, when it is visible over the UK, there can be as many as two passes in the space of two hours.

The reason that the ISS appears so brightly is that because it is 250 miles above the earth’s surface, it is still in sunlight when earth below is in the shadow of darkness.

Generally, the best way to spot it when it is due to pass over the UK is to look west for a fast-moving bright white light, rising upwards across the sky. When you spot it, you’ll have no doubt at all that you’re looking at the right thing.

If you want to check when the next passes are due where you are, the Heavens Above website is a good place to check.

Returning astronauts

It’s not just astronauts’ time aboard the ISS that attracts interest – launch missions and returns to earth are popular too.

Only last week, a group of astronauts returned from space in the Soyuz spacecraft, with the event inadvertently captured on camera by a British Airways pilot as it entered the earth’s atmosphere.

If you haven’t seen the ISS yet, don’t worry. Nasa expects it to be fit for service for another 15 years, during which it will orbit the earth roughly another 87,000 times.

So, here’s to another 15 years of standing outside in the dark and looking up as it passes overhead with a team of astronauts on board.

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