While satellites do get in the way of astronomy observations, observing a human-made object in space is a marvel of its own. Here are some of the easiest ways to catch a satellite in orbit.
Satellites typically look like stars slowly passing across the sky. If a solar panel or other object catches the Sun’s light, you may suddenly see it “flare” or brighten during its path. Look high in the sky, in areas away from light pollution if you can. You typically will see a few satellites per hour just by pure chance.
Track down the International Space Station
One of the most famous satellites is so large that crews of people live upon it. Called the International Space Station, this science lab hosts astronauts from all over the world. The orbital inclination of the ISS is almost 52 degrees, meaning you can see it from high latitudes in Canada.
NASA’s “Spot the Station” website will show the visibility of the ISS at your geographical location. At its best, the ISS looks like a bright star, visible for as long as six minutes at a time.
Find other satellites
To be honest, there are so many satellites available these days that it’s hard to find one application that will capture them all. But we’ll capture some of the main resources here.
- In-The-Sky.org or Heavens Above have a list of upcoming bright satellites, tuned for your location.
- Find Starlink will show you when SpaceX’s Starlink series of satellites passes overhead.
- For mobile applications, we suggest ISS Detector for Android (which can be configured for other satellites besides ISS) or OrbiTrack (iOS/Apple). If you bring your phone outside, be sure to use a red-light filter.
Since satellites pass across a large swath of sky, it’s probably easiest to use a digital camera that can take long exposures, if you want to get their streak. Use a tripod or place the camera on a solid object, making sure to use a wide-angle lens. Carefully aim the camera at the region of the sky where the satellite will appear. At the right moment, open the shutter for at least 30 seconds. For the ISS, try an ISO 400, with the aperture at around f/4. You may need to experiment with camera settings, for different lighting conditions or satellites, for best results.
Elizabeth Howell (Ph.D.) is a Canadian space journalist who has been obsessed with the topic ever since she, as a young teenager, saw the movie Apollo 13 in 1996. She grew up wanting to be an astronaut. While that hasn’t happened (yet), Elizabeth has seen five human spaceflight launches — including two from Kazakhstan — and she participated in a simulated Red Planet mission at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.