Stare into space on a clear, dark night and you’ll see them. Tiny dots of light moving across the sky. Some appear for a minute or so, others take several minutes to move from horizon to horizon. Many people have never seen them. Are they airplanes or meteors? No. Top secret military vehicles? Maybe. Aliens from another galaxy? Definitely not.
You’ve probably heard of airplane spotting. Welcome to the world of satellite spotting!
Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, humans have been hurling tons of stuff into earth orbit. More than 2,500 vehicles have been launched and there are over 21,000 objects larger than 10 cm being tracked by NASA. Some of these objects are active satellites (communications, research, weather, spy, etc) while others are junk from launch vehicles. That’s a lot of stuff!
You can’t see the little objects, but you can definitely spot the larger stuff with the naked eye if you have a little patience and clear skies.
Celebrity Satellites: Hubble & The ISS
The two undisputed rock stars of satellite spotting are the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station (ISS), the largest manmade object in Earth orbit. When the position of the sun and the orbit of these satellites are just right, they can easily be seen. The ISS can appear as bright as Venus.
Don’t limit your spotting to these two objects. There are hundreds of other viewable satellites!
What does a satellite look like from earth?
Due to poor low-light sensors in video cameras, there aren’t many good examples of satellite flyovers on the internet. I created an animation that approximates what you can see when watching a large satellite like the ISS. Most viewable satellites won’t appear quite as bright as the one in my example:
How To Spot Satellites
Satellites don’t have exterior lights. Even if they did, the lights wouldn’t be bright enough to see from the ground. When you spot a satellite, you are actually seeing reflected sunlight. The ISS has a huge array of reflective solar panels that reflect a lot of sunlight, making it easy to see.
Unless you are spotting the super bright ISS, you need to be away from city lights. Head out to the country. The best time to spot satellites is just after dark or before dawn when the sun is a few degrees below the horizon. During the middle of the night, the earth blocks the sun from the satellites as they pass overhead making them invisible.
Spotting Method One – Grab A Seat & Enjoy!
About 45 minutes after sunset, grab a lounge chair, stare up at the sky, and watch the stars. Within a few minutes, you’ll spot a “star” that treks smoothly across the night sky. Remember, airplanes have flashing lights; don’t confuse them with satellites. As satellites fly overhead, they often appear and disappear as they move in and out of the sunlight. Some will be very dim while others are quite bright.
On a clear, chilly evening earlier this week, my kids and I stood in the backyard to spot satellites. We counted eight satellites and one meteor within 15 minutes. Soon after, we lost count. My 10 year-old was ecstatic when he learned that some of them could be spy satellites. With a little coaching (“No, that one’s an airplane”) the kids quickly became expert spotters. Their eyes are a lot better than mine.
Spotting Method Two – Find Specific Satellites
This takes a little planning and research. There are several online tools available to help you spot your favorite satellite; even spy satellites. NASA’s Spot The Station (as well as most other satellite spotting tools) will tell you the date, time, direction (azimuth), and elevation where the satellite will appear in your area.
Check out the sighting data for the ISS on November 12th in my city:
Here’s what those numbers mean:
The ISS will become visible at 6:15 AM for 4 minutes. It will appear in the west-northwest sky at an elevation of 25° and disappear in the north-northeast at an elevation of 10°. Use a compass to determine the direction to look. The iPhone has a built-in compass that works great. Android phones, like the Galaxy, can be used with the addition of a compass app.
Figuring out the elevation:
Elevation is the measurement in degrees above the horizon. The horizon line has an elevation of 0°. Straight up is 90°. Using an outstretched arm, you can estimate degrees of elevation. Your three middle fingers held together is roughly 5°. Stretching your index and pinky finger apart will measure about 15° of elevation. It’s not exact, but it will get you looking in the right part of the sky!
That’s all there is to it! If you’re looking in the right direction, at the right time on a dark, clear night, you’ll see what you are looking for.
Satellite Spotting Tools
Here are my favorite tools for satellite spotting:
- NASA – Spot The Station: Easy to use. Spot the ISS and resupply ships. Text and email alerts when the ISS or resupply ships are visible!
- The NASA App (iOS & Android versions). Required app for every space geek!
For Advanced Spotters:
- Heavens Above: Viewing predictions for dozens of satellites and Iridium Flares.
- NASA SkyWatch: Viewing times for any location on Earth for the ISS and dozens of other satellites. Requires Java Runtime Environment which may cause security warnings.
Who needs a telescope?
If you have a DSLR with a really long lens or a full size “megazoom” camera, you can actually take pictures of the ISS! I captured this image of the station with my Canon PowerShot SX50. Settings I used were: ISO 200, f6.3, 1/320 sec. Zoom was set at 1200mm (equivalent).
Any luck spotting a satellite?
Have you seen a satellite or tried looking for them? I’d love to hear about your stargazing experiences. I’m also interested in what websites, tools, or apps you use to help spot them. Be sure to leave your comments below!
YouTube user Captain Jack captured the ISS in this 2005 video. This is a great example of how bright the ISS can appear, even when near city lights and a bright moon.
Thank you for the info! I always wanted to know how to go about spotting them!
You bet! Be sure to let me know how your spotting goes!
Cool Blog, Mr. Aerosavy! Back when I had a farm deep in the countryside of Missouri’s Gasconade County, I had the privilege and honor to watch the ISS and space shuttle zoom across the sky. Don’t recall which shuttle – but it had disconnected from ISS preparing to return. With the naked eye, you could almost see the separation of the two – barely. Pretty damn bright in a moonless sky. A few years later, I enjoyed sat viewing, and flights descending into KSTL, from the comfort of our hot tub out on a deck. Still in fairly good country lighting, saw a lot of “aliens” zoom across the sky. I used to look up NASA’s Skywatch – forgot about it. Thanks for the memory jog!
Great comment. That must have been really cool. There’s a lot to see up in the sky, we just have to remember to look UP!
Thanks for reading!
Thank you for the detailed information; very informative. I enjoy looking at the night sky very much. On September 3, 2016 I spotted a bright light in the sky with the naked eye (Sacramento, CA). At first I thought it was a bright star, or perhaps the headlights of an airplane, but it wasn’t. The light was brightly shining and moving in the eastern sky around 9:15pm. As I looked at it, the light slowly faded away within 10 seconds, and the object moved in the sky in a southwest direction. I followed the object until it disappeared deep in the sky. Being so high up, it appeared as a very, very tiny dot, and it moved rather fast. The entire experience lasted about 1 minute. It definitely was not a shooting star (seen plenty of these before), and it wasn’t a plane, either (no plane that high up would ever look this bright). There were no flashing lights or sounds associated with this object, either. I’ve seen the international space station across the sky before, but this looked different. Any thoughts as to what this object could have been?
You were watching a satellite. It could have been one of thousands of man-made objects (including space junk) orbiting our planet. Hang out in your backyard on a dark night soon after sunset and gaze at the sky. If you don’t have too much light pollution, you’ll lose count of the satellites you’ll see. My kids and I have seen 20 or more in under an hour.
Hi Ken, thank you for your replying to my post.
Just curious; isn’t there a point during the night when the earth blocks sunlight enough to reduce a satellite’s reflection to zero?
The answer to your question is definitely yes!
The best time to spot satellites is early evening when the stars and planets start to become visible until about 1-2 hours later. Good spotting also occurs 1-2 hours before the sunlight starts to appear in the morning. In the middle of the night, the earth blocks the sunlight from the satellites.
Thanks for reading!
Hi, I found this super interesting as I have been slightly freaked out by the amount of these I have seen passing overhead at night and no one I talk to has ever known much about them or has had little interest!
Not long back me and a friend stood outside my back door and we saw many at once (within minutes) around 15 fly all different directions but mainly to the left of us random and different distances away it looked like, then 6 met up in the sky in order close together.. four in a line and then two behind it close, then in front of the organised white lights a big ball of nuclear looking orange light that then blasted into white star light appeared, it went dim orange as if it charged and turned bright white again 3 times I saw. It was around 20x the size of the ‘moving lights’ around it then they all moved on and disappeared? Have you any idea? Also it may have no connection but as I looked in the opposite direction a shooting star flew across the sky in the opposite direction which I automatically thought could have been one of these firing into another galaxy haha. Brilliant information, thanks a lot ?
hi on aug 13 2020 i spotted15 satellite,s in one row going west to east @ 3-55 am ,the soaring from the first 5 was the same and therefore 3 close together and the rest similar spaces as the first 5, dus any body have seen this?
Those were SpaceX StarLink satellites. SpaceX is building a large constellation of satellites to provide world-wide internet service.
How big is the average satellite? How far away or high are they? Why is it when I see a huge commercial airplane at 35000 feet that I can hardly see it? Yet us satellite satellite are typically speaking that is that is hundreds if not thousands of miles away about the size of a Volkswagen be seen with the naked eye.?
Your comparison between a Volkswagen and a satellite is pretty close. When you spot a satellite, you really aren’t seeing the satellite, but a reflection of the sun.
i was curious on something i had seen one night moving through the midnight sky. usually airplanes have a sort of repeating pattern with their marking lights, even a few colors as well, greens blues reds whites, etc. this object flashed very randomly without any sort of pattern, sometimes not at all for 10 or more seconds and it was a very clear night. it also had zero sound and at one point it just vanished, from my sight anyway. who knows lol.
i should say, ive been gazing into our sky and into the great beyond for quite a while now and its awe inspiring, to say the least. itll never get old. its always changing. back on may 30, i watched the ISS track across a perfect night sky, directly overhead, and as usual, just as fascinating as the very first time viewing it. just as i lost sight of the station, here goes crew dragon hot on its tail with our 2 astronauts on board. it was on a slightly different path and its greater speed was easily noticeable. ill never forget that sight and whats even better is the what was accomplished, above all, being the safe return of our 2 astronauts.
but anyway, sorry for all the ramblings haha…also, you have a great page here as well as the info. much appreciated.
thank you and take care…
That’s fantastic. Great job spotting!
Hey my name is Matt Brown and I recently downloaded the ISS detector app and it also has other satellites on it as well. Planets and iridium flares also..but it says that skysat2 can be seen with the naked eye but I can’t seem to see it. Has anyone else seen this particular satellite? I have seen the starlink train…. It’s pretty cool…. At any rate, nice little blog you got here…. I’ll e back thanks.
I’ve been Satellite Spotting for a few years (on and off) and I use the phone apps to plan and tell me what they are. I wonder if there are any lists of satellites maybe by country, function, manufacturer? Just so you can tick them off, similar to train spotting?
That’s a really fun idea. There are several satellite tracking apps available for iOS (and probably Android, too). Do a search for “Satellite tracker” in the App Store.
Just found your blog, awesome! I have been watching satellites in the sky from my home in Clearlake California for years, as stated many times in this blog, lots of satellite action between 4 AM and 6 AM. Pretty amazing, I always suspected they were satellites, but I’m so glad to have found this website. Thank you.
Tonight from Portsmouth (south) England we saw a satellite ? moving across the sky defo not a plane and not lucky enough to see a shooting star
Do they always travel in straight line?
Are they visible during daytime? Like noonish.
I seen about 8 lights that were unevenly spread in no specific order.
Satellites always travel in a straight line. If you see several in a line, they are probably SpaceX StarLink satellites.
Is it possible to see satellites from the city? Ive seen two from my backyard, I think but I live in Oakland, CA. And that’s definitely not the country lol.
Yes, you can sometimes see them in the city. The ISS is often the brightest object in the sky. Keep an eye out for sighting times in your area.
We have seen the space station streak across the sky many times. Always a big bright white light so there is no doubt what we are looking at.
Tonight we saw a bright yellow light streak across at a similar altitude, speed, and size. At first we thought it was ISS but It appeared to have flashing lights more noticeable once it had passed and turned as it faded away.
ISS was going over Africa at the time and there were no planes on my Planefinder app.. any satellites we see are high above us and it was too cloudy to see them tonight.
The light was far too bright to be an airplane.
I don’t have any idea. If there were actual flashing lights (not caused by atmospheric irregularities) it wasn’t a satellite.
I live in Tuncurry, NSW 2428, Eastern Australia its Sunday night 27 Nov 2022 26 for all those West of us. I have been watching the Geminids and also Satellites that have moved into our Sky and appear stationary now. Probably matching our earth speed by not doing anything now.
The meteors have been quite prolific the last couple of nights.
The ISS due about 0347 tomorrow.
Orion is about 35-45degrees in Eastern sky and the radiant is still not visible. Not sure if its cloudy towards our horizon or it is not yet visible.
I enjoy doing this very much and I have for years. I was lucky in 2020 to spot 13 StarLink satellites in a row about 15 seconds apart. I’ve seen the ISS many times over the years and have invited neighbors and friends who have never seen it to join me. They’re all surprised to find out how easy the ISS is to spot and follow. I still go out in the evening and spot 2 or 3 satellites before going inside. Fun!
I view my ring cameras every morning to see what critters visit my yard nightly Lately, I have noticed a reflection on my car (parked in front yard and in my camera view) in the shape of three dots shaped like a triangle
They move slowly over and seem to appear nightly I am not a regular star or satellite watcher so I thought you would readily know
Thx so much
Patti in Florida
I couldn’t possibly guess what the reflection is. When you see it, go outside and take a look to find what is causing it.
I just started enjoying viewing satellites,. The best tool is a reclining lawn chair, I tried the apps with tiny success, just go out after the sun sets and relax and look straight up and you will see them with the naked eye, your article was absolutely spot on
Absolutely! Spend a few minutes stargazing before sunrise or after sunset and you are guaranteed to see one. Thanks for reading!
Hi Ken, Great site here. I’ve been an avid ISS watcher (about 90 times now) & anything else of interest in the night sky (meteor showers, planets, constellations, ESRB sat, etc) the past 3 years or so. I use NASA’s site for that & also been tracking the Tiangong. My fav site is Stellarium. On Feb 24 @ 5:34am I looked out a window to see a bright yellow light heading straight South. There was a thick enough cloud layer to block out all the stars & even though it was moving at the right speed; this light was too bright for the ISS even in clear skies (also wrong position for ISS). There were no flashing lights or sounds to indicate aircraft. A meteor at steep decent would have flashed a time or two, as I usually observe anyway. I’m out of ideas. You got any?
No idea. I’d have to see it to even guess. Sounds like a neat sighting!