Have you ever wondered if you can see satellites with or without a telescope? Can satellites really be seen with the naked eye? If not, can instrument like a telescope or binocular help us to see the satellites? I’ll answer all these questions in this article.
Yes, you can clearly see satellites with a telescope. Even satellites can be seen with the naked eye too! You just need to know when and where to look.
Now, I am going to explain how can you see satellites with a telescope.
So, let’s get started!
How Many Satellites Can You See?
Currently, more than 35,000 satellites orbit our Earth. It is not difficult to spot them. If you can look at the sky near dusk or dawn when the sky is relatively darker, you’ll definitely see one of the 35,000 satellites within just 15 minutes.
However, among these 35,000 satellites, most are junk rock pieces. Their sizes range from a softball to about 30 feet. There is an organization that keeps track of all these orbiting rocky debris. It is the JSpOC (Joint Space Operation Center).
Most of these satellites can’t be seen with the naked eye. Of course you can observe them with a good range telescope. With the naked eye, you can observe about a few hundreds of these satellites. Most of these satellites are about 20 feet in size and hang low in the atmosphere (about 100 to 400 miles from the ground).
Which Satellites Should You Observe First?
The first thing you should see is the ISS (International Space Station). Currently, ISS is the brightest and at the same time, the largest man-made object orbiting the Earth.
Here are some interesting facts about the ISS:
- It is 4 times larger than the Russian Mir Space Station
- The ISS contains about 520 tons of mass
- The size of the ISS is 356 x 290 feet.
- Contains 6 laboratories
- Has 1 acre of solar panels to provide electrical power
The ISS orbits the Earth at an altitude of 348 km (about 216 miles). It orbits the Earth at a speed of 27,700 km (17,200 miles) per hour. The ISS orbits the Earth about 15.7 times per day. When you observe the ISS, it will appear to be moving as fast as a jet airliner. It takes the ISS about 3 to 4 minutes to cross the sky. The reflective solar panels on the ISS makes it the shiniest man-made object in the Space.
Even the ISS can be so bright that, at times it can be seen as bright as the Venus. During some time of the year ISS can appear 16 times brighter than the Sirius (Sirius is currently the brightest star seen from Earth). Thanks to the sunlight and reflective solar panels, the ISS can even sometimes “flare” in the dark night sky!
What Are Some Other Satellites To See?
Some other satellites to look for in the night sky are Tiangong-1 space laboratory from the China, Soyuz and Progress Spacecraft from the Russia, Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Capsules, SpaceX’s Dragon etc. Also, the Hubble Space Telescope will surely be a treat to your eyes!
How To See ISS With (Or Without) A Telescope
The best time to see the ISS is during the Northern Summer. At this time of the year, the nights are the shortest. This time the ISS remains illuminated by the sunlight throughout the whole night. Even, you can see multiple passing of the ISS as it revolves the Earth every 1.3 hours on average.
There are mainly two types of passes that the ISS goes through: Type 1 and Type 2.
During the Type 1 pass, the ISS will appear in the southwestern region of the sky. Then it gradually sweeps over to the northwest. Type 1 passes are mainly visible before the sunrise, in the morning hours. When the early July hits, you’ll see type 1 pass in the evening, just after the sunset.
Type 2 pass occurs just after 7-8 hours later of the type 1 pass. The ISS follows the opposite direction to that of the type 1 pass. It starts from the northwestern part of the sky and goes towards the southeast.
Type 2 passes will be visible generally during the morning hours in early July. During the late July, the appearance will gradually shift over to the evening.
Surely you must be asking yourself when to look and where depending on your geographic location. Well, that’s not a problem anymore in today’s era of the internet. There are lots of sites that can help you with ISS appearance information depending on your Geolocation. I prefer Spot The Station most. It is a service from NASA, so you know it is authentic.
Just go to the site and perform the following:
When you visit the site, you’ll first see a map with a box labeled as ‘Enter your city of town’. Type the city or town you are in and from the dropdown suggestions, select your city. If you can’t find your city, choose the one nearest to you.
After choosing the city, you’ll see a map pinpoint of your location. Select the pin, you’ll see an option pop up ‘View sighting opportunities’. Select that.
After you select that option, you’ll be presented with a timetable with the information on when the ISS will pass over your geographic location. The table will contain several columns like Date, Visible, Max Height, Appears, Disappears, etc. if you want to learn more about these columns, read this article.
Some Tips When Observing The ISS
- If the timetable says that the ISS will not appear higher than 20 degrees from the horizon, chances are that it won’t be brighter than 3rd or 2nd In such cases, the ISS won’t be visible for longer than 2-3 minutes. The passes that occur much higher in the sky will last longer.
- The best passes are when the ISS follows a high arc path across the sky. It generally occurs about 45 to 60 minutes prior to sunrise and after sunset. The ISS stays visible for about 4-5 minutes.
- The ISS will appear to be moving very fast than a star, much like an airplane with no change in its direction. It has a T-shaped design. You can have a clear view of the ISS with a telescope if you aim at the right spot at the right time. For viewing satellites and other similar objects, I find Celestron NexStar 5 SE to be the best telescope. It has a GoTo mount which is computerized. With this telescope, there is no need for you to manually locate the ‘object’. So it is very suitable for the beginners. Amazon is currently offering the telescope at the cheapest price. Here you can check out the current price.
- During the evening passes, the ISS starts to appear dimmer and gradually gets brighter as it moves across the sky. The opposite happens during the morning passes.
- Sometimes, the ISS can quickly disappear out of the sky. It happens when the ISS slips into the shadow of the Earth (evening passes) or slip out of the shadow (morning passes). This incident is more likely to the passes that occur 90 minutes before the sunrise and 90 minutes after sunset.
So, this is my guide on how to see satellites with (or without) a telescope. I hope you’ve found the guide helpful!