I heard on the news tonight that there would be an exceptionally clear pass of the International Space Station, visible to the naked eye, this evening. I downloaded the app for my phone to tell me exactly when it was going to happen and waited outside for the pass.
Two things disappointed me. First, my eyes have been giving me trouble recently — stinging and failing to focus. Contacts versus glasses don’t seem to help, especially with my right eye, which simply refuses to cooperate with me when I wish for precision sight. This is most distracting and annoying, especially considering that I just went to an optometrist who diagnosed me as having no change in my prescription and no problems with my eye.
The second, of course, was light and sight pollution. Suburban and exurban neighborhoods generally prize well-lit streets and mature shade trees. These things are, however, incompatible with good views of the heavens. So the best I could do from my own house was to find a stepladder and position myself such that a tall tree in my neighbor’s yard blocked one of the many street lights so I could at least look out into the inky night sky.
The ISS rose at exactly the place and exactly the time that the application said it would. It ought to; the app coordinated my GPS coordinates with the data and math to make a very accurate prediction. I only had to wait a few seconds after the predicted appearance time for the station to rise above the mountains and enter my line of sight.
What I hadn’t expected was how much larger the station looked in the sky than I had expected. The magnitude prediction (how bright it was) seemed off, but that might have been my stubborn eyes. But even with an inability to make my right eye focus properly, I could tell that it was not a star, not a plane, but something entirely different. It looked to my eyes like four golden stars, moving in formation, obviously much faster than any airplane could. And it moved in an arc from the west to the north, entirely unlike anything else in the sky.While it wasn’t as bright as I’d been led to believe it would be (the guy on the radio said it would give Venus a run for its money in terms of brightness) it was visibly huge. The square shapes of the solar panels were clearly visible, and they rippled through the spectrum, reflecting the sunlight as proof that eighty miles in orbit, it was not yet sunset even though it was dark on the surface of the planet where I stood.
It look about three minutes to fly out of my line of sight and was a remarkable thing. A sign of humanity’s growing technological prowess. A firsthand demonstration of the rotation of the earth, a visible signal of the size of our planet, and a showing of the beauty of nature.
It should be doing another pass tomorrow, visible through most of North America, a little bit after sunset. If you missed tonight’s overpass, catch tomorrow’s. It’s worth it.