Sun, 05 Nov 2000

Stargazers can now track space station

By Lim Tri Santosa

BANDUNG (JP): There is definitely a lot of satisfaction involved in predicting where and when a satellite will appear and then to actually observe it. Very soon you ask yourself whether you can do more with these satellites than just looking at them. The answer is yes and it is twofold.

A new website ( developed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is making it easy and exciting for enthusiasts across the country and around the world to catch a glimpse of the orbiting facility. The "Where is the International Space Station?" site lets users identify the orbiting space station and determine in advance when it will pass over their hometowns.

The site relies on a sophisticated, Java-based program called J-Pass, developed by Patrick Meyer, a data systems engineer at the Marshall Center.

J-Pass displays user-friendly tracking information provided by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). It permits site visitors to track not only the International Space Station but also the Russian station Mir, space shuttle missions and the Hubble Space Telescope, including real time orbital positioning data of the Indonesian Palapa satellite.

The International Space Station is a cooperative endeavor by the United States and 15 other nations. It is the largest international space construction effort in history. Orbiting at more than 200 miles above the Earth, the space station is quickly growing into one of the brightest permanent fixtures in the night sky. Currently consisting of the American connecting module "Unity" and the Russian control module "Zarya", the station circles the planet approximately 16 times per day, traveling at 17,500 mph (around 8 km per second) in an orbit varying from 208 to 285 miles from Earth.

Because it reflects sunlight, the space station often looks like a slow-moving star as it crosses the sky. That deceptive appearance can fool a casual viewer but it also makes sighting the station easier if one knows when and where to look. The best time to catch a glimpse of the space station is near dawn or dusk, when the viewer is in near-darkness and the passing station continues to reflect light from the rising or setting Sun.

NASA's websites provide users with optimal visibility times for their locations. When construction is complete, estimates suggest that the 470-ton "city in space" will be brighter than the planet Venus. Access to NASA websites requires a Java-enabled browser, such as recent versions of Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. For viewers without a Java-enabled browser, the websites include other methods for obtaining sighting information. Johnson's Skywatch site contains a text- only list of sighting opportunities, while Marshall's site features an automated mailing list option. Subscribers to the list are notified by e-mail of upcoming satellite passes.

Simply log onto the Internet and the computer will tell you when the station will pass over your home. It will be easy to use for everyone. Once you find the location of the station, your adventure will begin and you'll probably be surprised by what you see. The Internet sites below provide predictions of where and when to look for the space station.

Meyer said: "The space station is fairly bright right now. It's almost as bright as Polaris, the North Star." And as more pieces are added to the station, particularly the massive solar panels, it will become even brighter.

The International Space Station will provide an orbital laboratory for long-term research, where one of the fundamental forces of nature, i.e. gravity, is greatly reduced. In addition, world class research in biology, chemistry, physics, ecology and medicine can be conducted using the most modern tools available. Commercialization of space research will allow industries to explore new products and services. Finally, the result of such innovation will create new jobs here on Earth and in space.

While some experiments will take place inside the space station, others will take place externally. These experiments will help reveal the effects of long-term exposure to the external space environment. Earth observations will allow researchers to study changes to our environment whether they are natural or by human causes.

One thing: Don't expect to view the station for a long time. Meyer said: "The longest the station will be over your home will be about 10 minutes, also don't expect to make out the station's shape; all you will see is a bright, darting object." But getting a quick glimpse of the largest multination engineering project ever undertaken will be worth it. You'll see space history in the making.

Want to have a nighttime look at the orbiting International Space Station, where astronauts and Russian cosmonauts will live and work during the next few years? It lets you identify the orbiting space station and determine, in advance, when it will pass over your hometown. For more information on tracking the station, go to Marshall's "Liftoff to Space Exploration" website,, Johnson's "Skywatch" website, and