Astro Bob: Yay! 9 more years of space station-watching
NASA expects to operate the International Space station through the year 2030.
Now through about Feb. 6, skywatchers across the northern hemisphere can watch the International Space Station cross the evening sky. During some of those passes the ISS will make close approaches to Jupiter, the sole remaining bright planet at dusk, and also Orion's Belt.
In the past 10 years, we've heard on more than a few occasions that it may be time to retire the space station. It costs $3-4 billion dollars a year to maintain the program, and after 20 years, the orbiting dormitory is starting to show its age. Moreover, the private sector has plans for building its own crewed, orbiting spacecraft that NASA could piggyback on and save money.
But just a few weeks ago, NASA administrator Bill Nelson announced the government's commitment to extend International Space Station operations through 2030. The agency will also 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 through the rest of this decade.
I think that's great news. For many, the space station is an invite to the night sky. Watching it pass through the stars at dusk and dawn has inspired people who otherwise wouldn't look up to notice the sky and take an interest in astronomy. For me the ISS represents hope. I look at that "bright star" and know that the crew is hard at work on scientific, educational, and technological projects to benefit everyone.
On Earth, astronomers point their cameras skyward, but on the space station, the astronauts are focused on blue ball below. Their incredible images reveal just how unique and stunningly beautiful our planet is.
The first component of the ISS was launched in 1998, and the first long-term astronauts boarded in November 2000. It's been continuously occupied ever since — 21 years and counting! Now it looks it'll make it to 30. While saving money and partnering with industry to build another version of the space station are forward-thinking, I'm thrilled there's still some life in the old beast.
On Friday (Jan. 21), a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft was 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 (Jan. 22), controllers will send the de-orbit command and land the cargo ship off the coast of Florida. Because of bad weather in the landing zone, the undocking was postponed to Sunday morning, starting at about 9:15 a.m. You can watch it live on NASA's website .
Among the items they'll retrieve are the results of two science investigations: samples that will provide insight using nanoparticles to fabricate and manufacture new materials and lab cultures to improve our understanding of how the human body responds to microgravity.
I don't know how far apart the ISS and Dragon will be when the pair passes over North America, but if the separation is significant, you might see the cargo ship as a fainter "star" alongside or near the station. Binoculars might be helpful here.
Here are several ways to find out when and where the International Space Station will be visible for the next couple weeks:
Go to Heavens Above and select your city by clicking on the blue Change your observing location and other settings link. Then return to the home page and click on the blue ISS link to see a 10-day table of passes that includes time, direction, brightness and altitude. Ten degrees (10°) of altitude is equal to one fist held at arm's length against the sky. The higher the negative number in the brightness column, the brighter the pass. Click on any pass time and a map will appear showing the station's path across the sky.
All times shown are local times on the 24-hour clock for your location, so 18:30 = 6:30 p.m. local time and 2:15 = 2:15 a.m. You can also get a list of customized passes and alerts by downloading the free ISS Spotter app for iPhone and ISS Detector for Android devices. Or you can sign up for alerts at NASA's Spotthestation site.
When the International Space Station is eventually deorbited, it will be laid to rest in Point Nemo , a remote area in the Pacific Ocean that is farthest from land. This is where large spacecraft are intentionally crashed to minimize danger to human habitations. For now, let's put that out of our minds and enjoy what we have now and in the years ahead.
This column was edited at 3:45 p.m. on Jan. 22 to update the delayed Dragon undocking. It was originally posted on Jan. 20 at 2:23 p.m.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune.