Astro Bob: Yay! 9 More Years of Space Station Observation – Duluth News Tribune
Until about February 6, skygazers in the northern hemisphere can watch the International Space Station cross the evening sky. During some of these overflights, the ISS approaches Jupiter, the only remaining bright planet at dusk, and also Orion’s belt.
In the last 10 years, we’ve heard more than a few times that it might be time to decommission the space station. The program costs $3 billion to $4 billion a year to maintain, and after 20 years, the orbital dormitory is starting to show its age. Additionally, the private sector has plans to build its own manned spacecraft in orbit, which NASA could piggyback on and save money.
But just weeks ago, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced the government’s commitment to extend the International Space Station’s operations to 2030. The agency will continue to work with Europe (ESA, European Space Agency). Japan (JAXA, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), Canada (CSA, Canadian Space Agency) and Russia (State Space Corporation Roscosmos) as partners for the remainder of this decade.
I think this is great news. For many, the space station is an invitation to the night sky. Seeing it gliding through the stars at dusk and dawn has inspired people who would not otherwise look up to notice the sky and become interested in astronomy. For me, the ISS is hope. I look at this “bright star” and know that the crew is hard at work on scientific, educational, and technological projects that benefit everyone.
On Earth, astronomers point their cameras skyward, but on the Space Station, astronauts focus on the blue sphere below. Her incredible images show how unique and breathtakingly beautiful our planet is.
The first component of the ISS was launched in 1998 and the first long-term astronauts boarded in November 2000. She’s been occupied non-stop ever since – 21 years and counting! Now it looks like it will be 30 years old. While saving money and working with industry to build another version of the space station is forward-thinking, I’m thrilled the old beast is still alive.
On Friday (January 21), a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to undock from the ISS at 9:40 a.m. CST and fire its thrusters to move a safe distance from the mothership. On Saturday afternoon (January 22), the controllers will send the de-orbit command and the cargo ship will land off the coast of Florida. You can watch it live from 9:15 a.m. CST on NASA’s website.
Among the items they will retrieve are the results of two scientific investigations: samples that will provide insights into the use of nanoparticles to manufacture and create new materials and laboratory cultures to improve our understanding of how the human body responds to the microgravity reacts.
I don’t know how far apart the ISS and Dragon will be Friday night when the pair fly over North America, but if the separation is significant, you may see the cargo ship as a fainter “star” alongside or near the station. This is where binoculars can come in handy.
Here are several ways to find out when and where the International Space Station will be visible over the next few weeks:
Go to Heavens Above and select your city by clicking on the blue Change your observing location and other settings Shortcut. Then return to the home page and click the blue ISS Link to view a 10-day table of passes showing time, direction, magnitude and elevation. Ten degrees (10°) of elevation is equivalent to a fist held at arm’s length toward the sky. The higher the negative number in the Brightness column, the brighter the pass. Click on any transit time and a map will appear showing the station’s path across the sky.
All times shown are local time on the 24 hour clock for your location, so 18:30 = 18:30 local time and 2:15 = 2:15 free ISS Spotter app for iPhone and ISS Detector for Android devices. Or you can sign up for alerts on NASA’s Spotthestation website.
When the International Space Station is finally deorbited, it will be laid to rest at Point Nemo, a remote area in the Pacific Ocean furthest from land. Here, large spacecraft are intentionally crashed to minimize the risk to human habitation. Let’s put that out of our minds for now and enjoy what we have now and for years to come.
“Astro” Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune.