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Satellite Watching
Our own stars in view...

Several hundred spacecraft now orbit around our planet. Many of those in low earth orbit (LEO) are bright enough to be seen by the naked eye as they streak across the night sky.

Some of the largest spacecraft, such as the shuttle and the Mir space station, have even been imaged by amateur telescopes with considerable detail.

A video made by Gary Eldridge from his backyard with an amateur telescope
of a solar transit by the ISS and docked Shuttle. For more details, see the posting here:
Capturing solar transits of ISS and Shuttle from a back yard - Space for All blog - Mar.13.08

Articles of Interest

See the archive for previous articles

News Sources

Suggestions for Beginners
The first and most essential step in observing spacecraft is obviously to know when and where to look. There are now many satellite tracking programs, both online and offline, that can give you the sky coordinates for a given object at a given time and location.

The easiest way to get started perhaps is to use the Heavens Above online program to find the time and coordinates of satellites that are passing over your location tonight.

Remember to bookmark the prediction page that is returned after you submit your location information. The bookmark holds your location so that the next time that you click on this bookmark, you will get the satellite visibility page already setup for you.

See also the information at Project Starshine in which a mirror covered spherical satellite was tracked by students: Beginner's guide FAQ.

The Astronomical League’s satellite observing program is called the Earth Orbiting Satellite Observers Club (EOSOC) and teir website offers resources for the satellite observing enthusiast such as this tutorial.

As you get more involved in satellite observing, you probably will want to use one of the offline tracking programs, many of which are freeware. Many of these provide star charting as well and thus can lead you into general astronomy.

Twisst.nl supports a Twitter service that tweets you when the ISS is going to fly over your location. Follow the Twisst account to get the notices. It uses your Twitter account profile information to determine your location.

Here's an overview of satellite observing:

Thierry Legault, astrophotographer extraordinaire, talks with Nancy Atkinson of UniverseToday.com about the art of observing and imaging spacecraft in orbit:

Here are interesting historical accounts of a nationwide program in the US started in the 1950s to organize amateur astronomers in the tracking of satellites:


Satellite Observation Information

Due to Microsoft discontinuing support for the Silverlight graphics drivers, the Satellite Tracking Tool from BINARY SPACE, which was previously available here, has been discontinued as well. However, BINARY SPACE offers a new app that lets you track missions throughout the solar system:

SpaceMissions™ is a 3D Solar System & Space Missions Simulator from BINARY SPACE that supports most Earth-centric spacecraft as well as some selected interplanetary missions as MSL (i.e. Curiosity rover), InSight, Rosetta, OSIRIS-Rex and more:

Travel through our Solar System, visit planets, comets, asteroids and watch critical maneuvers of interstellar probes at any time from any desired perspective.

This application is available for Microsoft® Windows® 10 (10.0.14393 or later) and can be obtained for free from the Microsoft® Store.   A scaled-down version of SpaceMissions™ is also available as a browser-based progressive application: SpaceMissions™ (Web-Edition).

Requirements: Latest versions of Google® Chrome, Microsoft® Edge (Chromium) or Mozilla® Firefox browsers and a system that supports WebGL2 with a fast Internet connection (> 50 Mbps)

SpaceMissions - Int. Space Station
SpaceMissions - Hubble Space Telescope
Heavens Above
This user friendly site allows you to find out what spacecraft will be passing over your location for a given period. Enter your location and then for a given spacecraft, e.g. the ISS, you can bookmark the prediction page to find out the upcoming passes over your position.

Visual Satellite Observer
This web site is devoted to amateur observations of satellites. Lots of info on everything related to seeing spacecraft passing overhead.

EOSOC - Earth Orbiting Satellite Observers Club
This group, sponsored by the Astronomical League, is administered by the Colorado Springs Astronomical Society. The club provides lots of resources for the satellite watcher. such as this Tutorial.

Google Maps/Google EarthTools
The Google Map system can be used by outsiders to develop interesting utilities with it. Here are Google map based tools that track satellites:

More Sites

Tracking Bigelow Space Modules

Bigelow Aerospace launched its first inflatable space habitat prototype module - called Genesis-1 - on July 12, 2006. Several more modules will follow it to orbit in the coming years. Here are some resources on tracking and observing these modules.

Genesis-1 has been labeled object 29252 by the U.S. Space Command. It has the nternational Designation Code of 2006-029-A. The module follows a 345 x 349 mile (555 x 561 kilometer) orbit and is at a 64.5 degree inclination.

International Space Station Observing

Ed Morana imaged the ISS as it crossed in front of the Moon.
Ed's ISS Transits Page

Tracking the space station's Moon shadow - New Scientist - Feb.27.06

NASA: ISS Passes
There are several NASA pages to obtain info on when the ISS will be visible from your location:

Spacecraft Photos from the Ground

Atlantis docked with the ISS - June.2007
A Visit from Atlantis
Credit & Copyright: Ron Dantowitz, Marek Kozubal,
Clay Center Observatory, Dexter and Southfield Schools.
Astronomy Picture of the Day, June.28.07 . See also
Station Watching - Sky and Telescope - June.28.07

Photos of spacecraft in low earth orbit with amateur level telescopes (e.g. 12" Schmidt-Cassegrain) have been made that provide enough detail to make out features of the Mir space station and space shuttles.

Amateur astronomers can now follow the progress of construction on the International Space Station, which is already one of the brightest objects in the nightsky.

Ron Dantowitz took the Mir image shown at top. His Mir images and shuttle images were taken from nearly 400km during the daytime with a 12" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on a Meridian Archimage mount.

Image of the Mir space station taken by Ron Dantowitz during
daytime on the ground with a 12" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope
on a Meridian Archimage mount.

Dantowitz and Marek. Kozubal, now at the Clay Center for Science and Technology, continue their spacecraft observations and have made detailed images of the International Space Station.

Shuttle Atlantis
Image of the Atlantis space shuttle taken in 1996 by Ron Dantowitz

Thierry Legault, amateur astrophotographer extraordinaire, took an image of the ISS and Shuttle Discovery on February 28, 2011 that shows astronaut Steve Bowen during an EVA. This is believed the first confirmed image taken from the ground of an astronaut in orbit:

Here are some links to other spacecraft images made from the ground:

Celestial Computing
C-Sat Satellite Viewing Software runs on a PC and controls a Meade LX200. It allows tracking of any satellite in its database.
Meade Gallery of Astrophotography
The Meade Telescope company has some photographs of MIR and other spacecraft taken with amateur telescopes. Picture of Mir with docked shuttle.

Meridian Controls
Meridian provides satellite tracking systems for telescopes.

"...Meridian's proprietary astronomy and satellite tracking mounts are so advanced that you can view and photograph the Space Shuttle, Mir, and other satellites in orbit- even during the daytime. See the solar panels and modules of Mir before it burns up in the atmosphere. Or watch up close as astronauts build the International Space Station in orbit. Shuttle dockings, spacewalks, Russian spy satellites and burned-out rocket stages are now easily visible at the push of a button."

ISS Simulator
This simulator from Philip Masding, who with Mike Tyrrell have made many ISS & Mir images, displays the orientation of the station as it orbits. This can be very useful in understanding what is seen in the typically blurry images of the ISS.
Photographing Satellites
Brian Webb's Space Archive site provides this page of tips on photographing satellites.
Telescopic Sat Observations at VSO
Lots of photos and info about seeing and taking photos of spacecraft with telescopes.

Iridium Flares

One of the first Iridium flare photos. Taken Sept. 20, 1997.
Copyright © Chris Dorreman. Courtesy of Chris Dorreman

The Iridium communications constellation consists of 72 or so satellites built and controlled by the Iridium consortium led by Motorola. The initial constellation was completed in May 1998.

Iridium satellite. The flares occur when sunlight reflects off the Main Antenna.

When these satellites pass overhead they can give a bright flash, or flare, when seen at just the right position with respect to the satellite and the sun. This is caused by reflections off the main antennas, not the solar panels.

There are now several web sites devoted to this phenomena, which can be very striking. The sites give information on finding where and when the flares can be seen from a given location.

Visual Satellite Observer
Visual Satellite Observer provides lots of info on seeing Iridium flares as well as other satellites. They provide a page of Iridium Flare Photos and also a list of programs for predicting the time and brightness of flares over your location.

Heavens Above
Heavens Above, formerly at the German Space Observatory Center, also provides Iridium Flare predictions for your location: e.g. for the next 24 hours. Remember to first enter your location data and then bookmark the resulting satellite visibility page.

More Sites

Utilities and References

Astronomical Info

  • Data Online
    The Astronomical Applications Department of the U.S. Naval Observatory provides this site of tables and programs to provide such information as times of Sunrise, Sunset, Moonrise, Moonset, and Twilight; Moon Illumination; Eclipses; Positions of the Sun and Moon; Data for Major Solar System Bodies and Bright Stars (see MICA - Multi-Year Interactive Computer Almanac); and dates of interest (e.g. Equinoxes, Solstices, etc.).
  • Navigator Star Finder
    Easy to run online Java program from Omar Reis that displays the stars over your city or current location in latitude/longitude.
  • Astronomy Calendars - Astronomy section

Latitude-Longitude Finding

  • Latitude- longitude of given city
    You've first got to know where you are to know where to look for the satellites!
  • U.S. Gazetteer
    Obtain your latitude/longitude of your house from your U.S. zip code.
  • GPS Section
    Your GPS navigator will provide you with your current latitude-longitude to very high accuracy.

Sun & Moon

  • Phase of the Moon
    Were you born under a full moon? Will your next camping trip have a moonless sky to see the stars at their brightest? Use this program from the US Navy to see the phase of the moon for any day between 1800-2199 AD.
  • Sunrise - Sunset computation
    Get the rising and setting times of the sun for a given day and location.
  • Sun or Moon Rise/Set Table for One Year
    Get the rising times of the sun and moon for a given day and location.
  • Sun, Moon & Earth Applet
    Cool online applet from Juergen Giesen that displays a mapping of the current position of the sun and moon with respect to the earch's surface Also, shows the height in degrees above the horizon vs time of day of the earth and moon for a given location on earth.
Viewing Conditions

Project Moonwatch
A program started in the 1950s to enlist the help of amateur astronomers to observe and monitor artificial satellites. Initiated by famousof Harvard astronomer Fred L. Whipple, it eventually involved thousands of participants. They were quite important in tracking the first satellites before special full time tracking stations were set up by late in the decade.


Online Satellite Tracking Programs & Data
Heavens-Above (previously GSOC Satellite Predictions)
Online Program at German Space Observation Centre is an excellent and easy to use source to obtain the latest information on satellites passing over your location tonight. After providing the program with your location for the first time, you should bookmark the page. The bookmark will then include your location so that clicking on the bookmark will automatically give the satellite data for your position.
Marek Kozubal's Satellite Tracking
Link list for satellite tracking data and programs including telescopic tracking systems.

Human Space Flight (HSF) - Realtime Data
NASA's HSF site provides links to several applets and other resources for online racking of the space shuttles, ISS, and satellites. E.g.
NASA J-Track
  J-Pass Satellite Tracker

NASA Sky Watch
Another NASA Java applet that gives current satellite and International Space Station locations.
Sheela V.Belur's "Interactive Spacecraft Orbit Utilities Page" offers several Javascript utilities such as
Propagate an orbit
, Solve Kepler's Equation, Orbital Elements to State Vector
Alan Pickup's Satellite orbit program

SatPasses - Satellite Passes Over North American Cities
Bester Tracking Systems provides the viewing predictions for several satellites, plus the shuttle when it is up, as seen from a long list of North American cities.

John Walker's Fourmilab Programs
John Walker offers several online and offline (freeware) astronomy programs. See, for example,
Your Sky - get your local sky viewing for your location
Earth and Moon Viewer - see earth and moon at the current moment with terminator
Solar System Live - online orrery

Binary Space
This company builds "state-of-the-art Satellite Telemetry Monitoring & Commanding Systems (TM/TC)". Their SatView™ package has been used for many space projects including Artemis, MARECS-A, ITALSAT-2, etc.

They now offer a real-time satellite tracking plug-in based on Microsoft® Silverlight® 4 that you can check it out for free here. With an easy to use drag-and-drop interface, you select from a big library of spacecraft to track their current locations and to obtain future orbits. They write, It has been developed solely for 'space enthusiasts' and is not intended for use by professionals.They are asking for input on the program including suggestions for what orbit prediction services they should implement.

Orbit Data

Satellite Tracking & Astronomy Software
Comsoft sells telescope control and satellite tracking software.
Bester Tracking Systems
Bester offers Unix software for Satellite Orbit Analysis and Tracking, Global Positioning System, and Astrodynamics Applications.

Stephen M. Schimpf offers this shareware planetarium program for Windows systems.

CyberSky is an accurate, yet easy-to-use planetarium program that provides an excellent way to learn about astronomy and explore the sky visible in the distant past, the present, and the far-off future. CyberSky can display and print attractive, highly-customizable maps of the sky as seen from your home, your favorite vacation spot, or any other location on the Earth. The program’s clean, user-friendly interface makes it easy to identify the objects you see in the sky and find the objects you want to see.

Distant Suns
Mike Smithwicks astronomy package is for

".. casual skywatchers to seasoned amateur astronomers ... Distant Suns is compatible with Windows 95,98, ME, NT and 2000, and Macintosh. With Distant Suns you may view the sky at the time of your birth, watch the sun set behind Saturn, land on Mars and follow newly discovered comets."

Other features include : Different astronomical stories and tutorials for each night of the year. Create your own "space movies". Print out star charts. In depth information of each star and planet. Over 16 million stars.-Event Alert system will warn you of any upcoming eclipses and meteor showers.

Distant Suns - Grand3D Screensaver

A "Free, Real-Time Satellite Tracking and Orbit Prediction Software" package
FlyOver by Tom Sylvestor predicts satellite flyovers for virtually any place on earth. It has scaleable map graphics and custom printouts. Downloading current data and current tracking is free, but observer location selection requires a registration fee.
InstantTrack 1.5
This powerful tracking program is offered by Amsat and proceeds from its purchase goes toward supporting Amsat projects.

Night Sky Observer
Gary Nugent provides these programs:

  • LunarPhase (Shareware) - "Displays real time information and graphics about the moon (or for a selected date). Contains many charts and diagrams, predicts eclipses, produces a range of printouts."
  • LunarPhase Pro (Commercial) - "More comprehensive that LunarPhase V2.62; includes a Lunar Explorer screen which allows the identification of lunar features from dropdown lists or by clicking on a map of the moon; maps of near and far side features as well as polar regions included; Orthographic and Mercator maps can be viewed and printed; calculates, displays and and animate libration effects; includes database of lunar features."
  • JupSat - "Displays the positions of Jupiter's satellites in real time (or for a selected date). Also calculates Great Red Spot Transit times and displays satellite track diagrams. Full details can be found at: This application is freeware." - Gary Nugent
NLSA - Nova Satellite Tracking Software
Northern Lights Software sells this program that "Real-time tracking of an unlimited number of satellites".
Orbit Visualization Toolkit
Orbit tracking system based on the open source VTK (Visual Toolkit).

PREDICT - A Satellite Tracking/Orbital Prediction Program
This program is "an open-source, multi-user satellite tracking and orbital prediction program written under the Linux operating system by John A. Magliacane, KD2BD. PREDICT is free software. Users may redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation, either version 2 of the License or any later version."

Available for Linux/Unix and for DOS under Windows.

Satellite constellation visualisation program from Univ.of Minnesota

Satellite Tool Kit - Analytical Graphics Inc.
Analytical Graphics professional level satellite tracking program.

Hughes Aerospace, for example, used it to plan the maneuvers of a communications satellite, which was placed in a useless orbit by a fualty launcher, to do lunar swingbys to put it into a viable orbit.

This program once cost several thousand dollars. Surprisingly, though, it has been made available now as freeware. The company says it makes money by selling sophisticated add-ons for particular applications.

Sienna Software Inc. - Starry Night
Full featured astronomy program with over 19 million celestial objects. Includes satellite tracking and addition of new satellites. Can control telescopes.
SkyMap Software
A planetarium and star-charting program for Microsoft Windows 95/98 and Windows NT4. "Written by astronomers, for astronomers." Info Demo
Skyshow Telescope Satellite Tracking
Celestial Computing offers this site about techniques and software to track satellites with your telescope.

STSPLUS Shuttle/Satellite Tracking
A program by the late David H. Ransom. It offers the STSPLUS program for DOS to track the shuttles and also satellites using NASA/NORAD 2-Line Orbital Elements. Shows position and ground track.

This freeware program offers "..satellite orbit prediction, tracking, and radio communication, with emphasis on low-cost and educational approaches for the do-it-yourselfer or hobbyist."
More Astronomy/Satellite Programs & Stores

Satellite Tracking Program Libraries

AMSAT Software Catalog
An assortment of software used in the amateur satellite community. Includes satellite tracking. A few programs also come with the source code - Downloadable Software - with source code

CelesTrak WWW Software Repository
T.S. Kelso's CelesTrak offers several satellite tracking packages to download. The site also provides the Satellite Tracking Software Index with descriptions of several other satellite tracking programs.

Microcosm Astronautics
Microcosm is a rocket company that also sells books and also software for space applications.

John Walker's Earth Viewer
John Walker, the inventor of AutoCad, now writes wonderful freeware such as this program that provides satellite orbital prediction as well as other astronomical displays.

Other lists

Educational Resources


The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey






Space Radio & Observing Books

The ARRL Handbook for Radio Amateurs 2009
Amazon: US UK
Radio Monitoring : The How to Guide
T. J. Skip Arey - 2003
Amazon: US UK
The Sky is Your Laboratory: Advanced Astronomy Projects for Amateurs
Robert Buchheim - 2007
Amazon: US UK
The Beginner's Handbook of Amateur Radio
Clay Laster - 2000
Amazon: US UK
Radio Astronomy Projects
William P. Lonc - 1996
Amazon: US UK
Radioscience Observing
Joseph J. Carr -1999
Amazon: US UK





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