Why I always take my son outside to watch the ISS fly over.

“Quick!”, I yell….. “It’s about to come over”.
My son jumps off the sofa and heads out of the back door with me.
We stand in the cold night air, looking up at the sky. Far to the west, a small bright dot begins to move across the blackness. It’s barely noticeable at first, masked by the ever present glow of the light pollution coming from our nearby city. Our patience is rewarded however. The dot has become brighter and faster and is overhead now.
We point up at it, grin at each other and marvel at this incredible sight zooming across the night sky.
So why do I think that taking my son outside to wave at the International Space Station (ISS) is so important? Well, to many people it has just become another “thing” to look at or photograph in the night sky but for me it represents something else, something quite important.

The ISS flies overhead. © Charles Simpson 2015

Like many other 13-year-olds across the country, if I’m not careful, my son’s life would revolve around electronic gadgets – his phone, his Xbox and computer. So it’s really great to be able to break into that “virtual” circus and do something different and, in my opinion, more rewarding.
And that’s where astronomy comes in. We actually started in a fairly low key way, remembering names of the moons various planets in the solar system as a sort of game whilst walking the dog at twilight. I’m pleased to say with a little time and encouragement, he now really loves the time we spend outside under the starry skies, looking at various astronomical objects and constellations. After only a short time, he could name many of the constellations in the night sky and can now use certain asterisms and constellation features to locate other easily visible astronomical objects such as star clusters and named stars. Even thinking on a larger scale, he has a good grasp of our place in the universe (well, astronomically speaking anyway!).
Many people might regard astronomy as a dry subject and firmly entrenched in the world of science but that’s not the case at all or at least it certainly doesn’t have to be! The opportunities for using astronomy as a vehicle to engage kids in a variety of subjects is huge and very wide ranging. With a few ideas at the ready and little nudge in the right direction, the possibilities are plentiful.

For modern kids, it’s so easy to get lost in the easy attractions of the virtual world.
My personal belief is that it’s really important for them to take time out from the ‘small things’ (ie. the day to day stuff), to gain an appreciation of the bigger things. A wider world of science, history, art and wonder.
And that brings me back to the ISS.
The power of the ISS is not just in the science experiments completed onboard – it’s not in the astronauts’ amazing journey to and from the station – it’s not even in the fact that the ISS itself is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of science, engineering and international co-operation.
For me, it’s the power to inspire!
It’s that little “wow” you get when you explain that it’s bigger than the size of a football pitch, has more space than a six bedroom house, is travelling at over 17,000 miles per hour, orbits the earth over 15 times a day and has a crew of six brave men and women who live and work aboard for six months at a time.
So the next time you get chance to pop outside for a look …… give it a try.
Whether you’re in the middle of a city or in the middle of the countryside, it doesn’t matter. You’ll still be able to see it.

Links to ISS Tracking websites
A quick search of the internet will bring up many websites that will track the position of the ISS. Here are a couple of useful ones to get you started.

NASA’s “Spot the Station” webpage with a guide on how to see the ISS from your location including the times to go outside for the best view. http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/

The ISSTracker website does exactly what is says on the tin and tracks the position of the ISS in real time. http://www.isstracker.com/

I wrote this blog post over two years ago now, when I was the guest blogger for the amazing Kielder Observatory. My son is now 15 and looking at careers in the space sector.
From tiny acorns, massive oak trees grow. 🙂


Comet Tales – Exciting ISON

Now that all the excitement has died down a little, I felt it only right that poor old ISON got at least one blog post from me, to commemorate its passing.
I, like many others (my fellow astro-obsessed people), watched intently the journey of comet ISON over the last couple of weeks of November to today in early December, culminating at the very end of November (perihelion on the 28th) in ISON’s passage around the sun and thence to its final demise to naught but a wisp of dust and particles (although speculation still abounds!).


A time-lapse image of comet ISONs perihelion.

This information above probably comes as no great shock to anybody.
Anyone into space and astronomy was watching.
However ……
I feel I have to comment on the unpresidented activity that ISON’s slingshot round the sun caused. I for one was glued to my twitter feed, the helioviewer website and the NASA and ESA feeds of LASCO, SOHO and STEREO data.
It was joyous to behold !
….. but not because of ISON itself but of what it caused. The huge level of interest in this space based phenomena. A surge of tweets and posts, as so many like-minded science lovers looked on, and speculated, postulated and discussed.
But it became more than just the science community, for a time ISON entered the domain of the common man and sought to complete almost as a celebrity. It was trending on twitter, discussed on local radio stations and given plenty of attention in the national media and television.
How wonderful that science could be brought to the fore and engage so many people by the travel of a lump of icy rock that began its journey from the very farthest reaches of our solar system over a million years ago.

C/2012 S1 (ISON) ….. I salute you !

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