Have you ever wondered if you can see satellites with or without a telescope? Can satellites be seen with the naked eye? If not, can instruments like a telescope or binoculars help us see the satellites? I’ll answer all these questions in this article.
Yes, you can see satellites with a telescope. Even satellites can be seen with the naked eye too! You need to know when and where to look.
Now, I will explain how you can see satellites with a telescope.
So, let’s get started!
Table of Contents
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 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. But, of course, you can observe them with a good range telescope. You can observe about a few hundreds of these satellites with the naked eye. Most of these satellites are about 20 feet and hang low in the atmosphere (about 100 to 400 miles from the ground).
Which Satellites Should You Observe First?
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 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 make it the shiniest man-made object in Space.
Even the ISS can be so bright that, at times, it can be seen as bright as 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 night sky!
What Are Some Other Satellites To See?
Other satellites to look for in the night sky are the Tiangong-1 space laboratory from China, Soyuz and Progress Spacecraft from 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 around the Earth every 1.3 hours on average.
The ISS mainly goes through two types of passes: 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 sunrise, in the morning hours. However, when 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 after 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 generally be visible during early July morning hours. However, in late July, the appearance will gradually shift to the evening.
Surely you must ask 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 the 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 see a map with a box labeled ‘Enter your city or 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 pinpointing your location. Select the pin; you’ll see an option pop up ‘View sighting opportunities.’ Select that.
After selecting 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, the chances are that it won’t be brighter than 3rd or 2nd. The ISS won’t be visible for longer than 2-3 minutes in such cases. 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 before sunrise and after sunset. After that, the ISS stays visible for about 4-5 minutes.
- The ISS will appear to be moving faster 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 locate the ‘object’ manually. So it is very suitable for beginners. Amazon is currently offering the telescope at the lowest price. Here you can check out the current price.
- As the evening passes, the ISS appears 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 slips out of the shadow (morning passes). This incident is more likely to the passes that occur 90 minutes before 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!