Watching Earth-Orbiting Satellites

By Dennis Mammana

April 4, 2019 4 min read

Week of April 7-13, 2019

One of my favorite springtime activities is to watch satellites pass across the early evening sky. I'm sure you've seen them, too: It's hard to miss them with so many orbiting our planet these days.

So, how does one know when and where to look? With the internet and smartphones, it's really quite easy. While there are many apps available that provide times and locations of bright satellites, my favorite website for predicting satellite passes is Heavens Above.

Once there, take a few minutes to register. It's free, and it'll make your future visits much more productive and enjoyable. Not only will you learn which satellites are passing over your neighborhood, but you'll also find times of sunset, sunrise and twilight, phases of the moon and much more.

To use these features, you must first tell the program where you're located, either by selecting your town from its massive database or, for more precision, by entering your latitude and longitude manually.

Once you do this, you can easily learn the details of upcoming satellite passes. My favorite feature comes from clicking the time of a satellite's maximum altitude: A full sky map appears, showing a satellite's path across the (hopefully) familiar constellations.

Now let's say, for example, you discover that the International Space Station (ISS) or the Hubble Space Telescope will be making a great pass tonight, and you'd like to see it.

First, make sure your watch is set to the correct time. Next, go outdoors and look along the satellite's projected path for a "star" that appears to be drifting slowly in the correct direction. Don't be fooled by one with blinking red and green lights: This is not a satellite! And always begin your satellite-watching session a few minutes early.

In the evening sky, a satellite will often appear faint at first and brighten as the sun's light illuminates it more fully. Sometimes it will even catch a brief glint of sunlight and brighten rapidly. Don't be surprised, however, if the satellite eventually fades away while still in the sky: It's just entered the shadow of the Earth.

Photographing an Earth-orbiting satellite is easy, too. With your camera on a sturdy tripod, aim it toward one of the constellations along the satellite's path. With everything in "manual" mode, focus on infinity, setting your aperture as wide open as possible, making sure your ISO is around 800 or 1600 and the exposure is set to "bulb" (or whatever setting allows you to take longtime exposures). Be sure to try some test exposures just before the satellite appears, so you can make adjustments to your settings.

When the satellite approaches your target, trip the shutter until the satellite has passed completely. It will record as a streak crossing the stars which, depending on the length of your exposure, may also appear as streaks.

It's sure great fun to watch a satellite pass overhead and even more fun to know which one you're seeing. But best of all is being able to call the neighbors outside because the ISS is going to pass by in a few minutes.

Now that's cool!

 Photographing Earth-orbiting satellites is easy and fun.
Photographing Earth-orbiting satellites is easy and fun.

Visit Dennis Mammana at To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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