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The International Space Station (ISS) crosses the sky each night for only one or two minutes and can be seen by anyone with ordinary eyesight as an extremely bright star-like object, high overhead. “It’s an amazing sight” said David Moore, Editor of Astronomy Ireland’s magazine “Astronomy Ireland”.  The station can be up to 100 times brighter than even the brightest stars in the sky, so it is a wonderful sight to the naked eye.  ISS is also the most expensive object ever built and the biggest international collaborative scientific project in history. So this is a unique object to go out to watch.

The ISS is a habitable laboratory in low Earth orbit. Its altitude varies between 414 and 437km, travelling at 38,000km/hr, completing 15.7 orbits a day and taking 92min to circle Earth.  It crosses the equator at 51.6°, which means that it flies between 51.6° north and 51.6° south latitude.  Most of Ireland is just above this latitude, which means that it is not directly overhead, but can be seen high to the south as it crosses our skies from west to east as it heads across to continental Europe.  The light of the sun best best illuminates the space station after dark and before dawn, the main reflection coming from its huge solar panels. 

Have look around inside – two minute video tour

The ISS is a joint project between the space agencies of the United States (NASA) and Russia (Roskosmos), who host a partnership with Japan (JAXA), Canada (CSA) and Europe (ESA). The European countries most involved are Germany, France and Italy.  China asked to join the project at the beginning, but this was vetoed by the United States, so China began constructing its own space station, Tiangong, in 2021.  China’s station orbits at 42°, far to the south, making it difficult to see from Ireland.

The ISS was a merger in 1993 of the planned American space station Freedom with the planned Russian space station Mir 2, to which modules from Europe and Japan were added, Columbus and Kibo respectively, with Canada providing the station’s robotic arm.  The last elements of the station, the Russian science module Nauka and docking module Prichal, did not arrive until 2021, so it is now complete.

The first section, the Russian Zarya module, was launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome on the 20th November 1998.   The first permanent crew of three came on board on 2nd November 2000.  The normal crew complement now is seven: three Russians, three Americans and typically an astronaut from Japan or Europe.  Each crew normally serves for six months, called a rotation, with a handover period of about a week.  The station is controlled from the Manned Spaceflight Centre, Houston, Texas; TsUP in Moscow; Oberpfaffenhofen in Germany; and Tsukuba in Japan.

The first crews were brought to the space station by the American Space Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.  The shuttle was out of service for three years after the Columbia disaster in 2003 and was retired in 2011.  During the lengthy period when the shuttle was unavailable, Russia launched all the crews to the space station on the three-person Soyuz.  Not until 2020 were Americans able to return to orbit from United States soil with the introduction of the four-person SpaceX Crew Dragon. Cargo is brought to the space station by unpiloted spacecraft: Progress on the Russian side, typically four times a year and the American Dragon and Cygnus.  A huge amount of scientific work is carried out on board the orbital station of great value to people on Earth.  The current framework for the operation of the station lasts till 2024.  This is likely to be extended in some shape or form, but NASA has set a de-orbit date for 2031.  China’s station is likely to operate until into the 2040s.

These notes were written by the internationally acclaimed space author and broadcaster Brian Harvey who has written or co-written 15 books about the world’s space programmes. 

Brian also writes a column about the ISS for our magazine every month which is a world exclusive for AI magazine ORDER HERE 

Updated May 2022