Space station spotting

This wins the prize for the activity the small boy has enjoyed the most in the past few weeks as he was literally bouncing with excitement for hours afterwards! It's something I had been meaning to do for a few weeks, but either the weather wasn't right or the timing wasn't right, but today we got the timing and the weather. So what was it? Seeing a little dot of light travel across the sky. Twice.  No, really, that was it.  But the dot was the International Space Station (ISS), and that's why it was so exciting for my 3 year old.

We noticed the half moon shining brightly in the dusk sky through a window and my 3 year old told me it was a clear night. I started telling him that it would probably be cold tonight because there wasn't any cloud to keep us warm, and he stopped me with "No, Mummy, the space station. Can we see it?". 

He's been interested in the space station since he saw a clip of it on the CBeebies programme "Grace's Amazing Machines", and I looked up which astronauts were currently abroad and showed him some pictures of the view back to Earth that they can see. He was captivated and got very excited when we talked about being able to see it sometimes when it passes over us. We looked up the times it would be visible and they were a few days away. Then when the days got closer there was thick cloud, or we were doing something else. And then we forgot for a few days, until this evening when I looked up the times it would be passing overhead (there's a NASA website and a nice app called ISS Detector which shows the path it will take across the sky). When I looked it up this evening, I found it was coming over about 20 minutes later and again about an hour and a half later. The small boy was very keen to go out and look, so I found our binoculars and got us dressed for the cold, and we headed out into the garden. 

It's not easy to see a lot in the sky in London aside from aeroplanes, but with the help of the app, we knew which way to look (and the small boy had remembered which way was North from our compass-building in the Summer). A bright speck of light appeared in the place we expected, moving steadily across the sky. I thought he might find it underwhelming but he was so very excited to be able to see where the astronauts lived. We could see about 4 minutes of its orbit as it was very high in the sky in just the right direction between nearby houses and trees. I don't think he could see it through the binoculars as it takes some skill to aim them in the right direction and focus them, but he could see it easily just with his eyes (and he gave up with the binoculars very quickly). I took a few photos but they are a bit shaky owing to a bouncing baby who was in the sling trying to grab the camera!

A pretty shaky image of the space station passing overhead

We went back inside and he wanted to know when he could see it again. I told him it was coming over again at dinnertime and he desperately wanted to show it to Daddy.  Sadly Daddy's train home from work was delayed, but the boys and I went back outside, this time in proper darkness but with some patches of cloud in the sky. He was again really excited to see it, and it was visible for about 2 minutes this time, although some of the time it was hidden behind the cloud which he found quite interesting - I explained that it was further away than the cloud. We also saw some stars, and he wanted to know whether he could see any planets. I need to do a bit of research so I can take him out another evening to see some stars and planets when the weather and their positions in the sky are right. I suspect we may be going to see the space station again soon too... It is amazing how it has captured his interest!