You Don’t Need A Telescope To Follow A Satellite (VIDEO)

ESA's ATV Georges Lemaitre docks with the International Space Station (ESA)
ESA’s ATV Georges Lemaitre docks with the International Space Station (ESA)

Would you like to chase satellites, print out custom sky charts whenever you wish, and locate real-time iridium flares without a telescope or binoculars? Heavens Above has just the features you’re looking for. It’s dedicated to helping people observe and track, with only the naked eye, satellites orbiting Earth.

Chris Peat, a physicist and space-industry veteran at the German Space Operations Center in Munich, created and has nurtured the nonprofit Heavens Above website over the past 15 years. Heavens-Above GmbH is headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. Sky and Telescope praised this sky-minded scientist’s innovation as “the most popular website for tracking satellites.” It’s also one of the top 100,000 sites in the world.

Observer's location settings on Heavens Above (Heavens Above trial run)
Observer’s location settings on Heavens Above (Heavens Above trial run)

Peat gives you detailed star charts that show the trajectory of satellites against the background of the stars you’ll see as you look up. Enter your observing location, and the site automatically sets up its databases for where you are. Here’s my location map, for example (at right).

International Space Station  track example (Heavens Above)24/7, you can check the current position of the International Space Station, as well as its past and oncoming track. You can locate currently visible comets, asteroids, planet details, and other miscellaneous information, including other space stations, rockets, and space junk as well.

Joshua Roth of Sky and Telescope gives us an idea of just how the system works to spot about 100 Iridium communications spacecraft flares in the exosphere:

“Heavens Above tabulates the altitude and azimuth of each flare event, but you also can use the site to plot a particular flyover against the stars as follows: once you have the list of flares generated by the steps given above, click on a particular spacecraft (“Iridium 53,” say), and then on ‘Passes.’ This will give you a list of that spacecraft’s passes over your location for the next several days. Click on one of those passes by date, and you can get a star chart showing the spacecraft’s quickly changing position among the stars.”

Earlier this month, for example, Heavens Above steered viewers to the European Space Agency’s Georges Lemaitre cargo ship, an automated transfer vehicle, as it approached the International Space Station at a leisurely pace with replenishments. The astronauts unloaded the ATV and then stuffed it with trash to burn up on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. (See video below for background on the Big Bang creator’s namesake vehicle.)

Time and calendar information to help you out with skywatching are also only a mouseclick away. The map below shows the geographical distribution of visitors to Heavens-Above over the last 30 days. The locations are obtained from the latitude and longitude specified by the user. You can see that in the US, East Coast, mid-Appalachian, and Cairo confluence stargazers know where to look!

US visitors to Heavens Above website (from Heavens Above trial run)

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