Spaceship in the Sky

When and why you can see a very bright spaceship above Europe this week.

Want see the most socially-isolated place of all whizz over your home at 17,000 mph? For Europeans, this week is the perfect opportunity time to see the International Space Station (ISS) in the night sky. What’s more, all you need is five minutes and your naked eyes.

The orbiting satellite that’s currently home to three astronauts is brighter than usual, and its visible passes are more frequent than is typical. If you’ve never seen is before, this laboratory orbiting 200 miles above us faster than a speeding bullet, is a beautiful sight to behold.

What does the ISS look like?

It’s hard to confuse the ISS with the tail-lights of aircraft, which flash. The ISS does not flash, it flares. It looks like a bright, white, constant light in the night sky - much like a moving star - and it’s typically visible only around sunset and sunrise. That’s because what you’re actually seeing is sunlight reflecting off the spacecraft’s solar panels, so the Sun has to be just below the horizon.

The ISS takes about 90 minutes to complete one orbit of Earth, so that’s roughly how long you have to wait between sightings.

How long does it take for the ISS to cross the sky?

Between one and six minutes, generally speaking, though it’s the longer passes that are the ones of actively seek-out; these are the passes of the ISS right above your head.

The ISS always appears in the southwest/west and crosses to the northeast/east, though as it reaches the zenith—the point above you head at 90º—it will begin to fade as it enter’s Earth’s shadow. As it does, the astronauts on board will enjoy one of the 16 sunsets they see in every 24-hour period.

This week, for Europe, the ISS is crossing high in the sky and appearing brighter, for longer. Here’s when to see it.

When to see the ISS

This week the ISS is appearing bright and beautiful, with much brighter, much more frequent passes than usual. Here are some great resources for finding out exactly when the ISS will cross your home this week—or at anytime—but they’re not 100% reliable so do be outside a few minutes before any times you see quoted:

  • NASA Spot The Station – enter your location and email and NASA will send you an SMS or an email detailing the times of bright passes coming your way.

  • Heavens-Above – this satellite predictions website and Android app is the best resource for finding out comprehensive details — as well as sky-charts —for ISS passes. and much more besides.

  • Virtual Astro – a great resource for UK stargazers, particularly the Twitter feed, which tweets countdown alerts before bright passes of the ISS.

Virtual Astro gives the U.K. times of some of the “incredibly bright” passes this week across Europe as:

  • Thursday, May 21: 22:53

  • Friday, May 22: 00:30, 22:05, 23:42

  • Saturday, May 23: 22:54

  • Sunday, May 24: 22:06, 23:43

Why is the ISS so bright over Europe this week? 

It’s all about the time of year. The Sun has to be just under the horizon, thereby allowing the solar panels on the ISS to catch the sunlight. At this time of year from northern latitudes the Sun doesn’t get far below the horizon, so those solar panels reflect full bright sunlight both more intensely and for longer.

Clear skies are the other essential, though this week’s passes are so bright the ISS can be glimpsed through thin cloud, too.

Who is on the ISS?

Chris Cassidy (NASA), Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner (both ROSCOSMOS) will very shortly be joined by NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who will blast-off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:33 p.m. EDT/20:33 GMT on May 27, 2020 as part of the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission.

That is going to be a big occasion. Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission will be the first time astronauts have gone into space from American soil since the last Space Shuttle mission in 2011, and also the first time NASA astronauts (or anyone else) have travelled on a commercial, private space flight.

Courtesy of Forbes