This April 12 the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight, made by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961.
We have come a long way since then, with more than 500 people worldwide having flown in space.
What better way to honor this special moment in history than to take a few moments to watch the International Space Station flying over your backyard?
Over the next week or so, early risers in all of North America and Europe as well as parts of the Middle East and North Africa will be able to spot the football field-size orbiting laboratory making bright passes about an hour or two before local sunrise.
Speeding along at 17,000 miles (27,359 kilometers) an hour at an average altitude of 250 miles (402 kilometers), the huge space station appears like a superbright star gliding across the heavens.
Covered in metallic modules and solar panels, the ISS is highly reflective, making it at times shine brighter than any star or planet.
BTW, you will be able to tell it’s not an airplane, because the station won’t have any blinking lights. But you have to hurry, because at those speeds it takes only two to four minutes for the craft to traverse the sky.
Of course with the viewing window so short, the trick is knowing when and where to look. That’s made easy thanks to a couple of really good websites. Spaceweather.com and Heavens-above.com both have tools for generating time tables using nothing more than your zip code or city name.
These sites also list many other orbiters—from spy planes to old rocket boosters—that are visible to the unaided eyes, even within city limits.
How about taking a souvenir photo of the ISS flying over your house? It’s surprisingly easy. All you need is a camera that lets you set your exposure for 15 to 30 seconds and a tripod with the control timer set for at least two seconds, so your setup doesn’t shake.
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.