To Teachers:  you can pass this post on to your students as a home activity, so they can track the International Space Station as it flies over the surface of Earth.  

Feedback on this Teachable Moment is welcome. Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the post. 

Concepts addressed:
Physics and Space: characteristics of Earth orbiting objects – altitude, speed, position, day/night variation, plane of orbit, direction of orbit
Geography: interpreting maps; using a physical model of the Earth
Mathematics: converting units; metric versus english units; using ratios and proportions


Wouldn’t it be cool to know what part of Earth the International Space Station is passing over right now? It would give you an understanding of what the astronauts are seeing when they look down from space at this very moment, or alternatively, where on Earth you’d need to be right now to see ISS fly overhead (assuming its night time there). In fact, it would be pretty cool to know if ISS is on the day-lit side of Earth or on the night side. Are astronauts looking down on an Earth illuminated by sunlight, or on a dark Earth punctuated with lights from human population centers? Well, the good folks at the European Space Agency, an International Partner on ISS, have made it possible for you to figure it out with the ISS Current Location tracker –

The ISS Current Location tracker above was developed by the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA’s Columbus laboratory is a component of the ISS. Visit the ESA website for more information on the tracker.

Some Things to Ponder
Note: on the map above, you can display the information in English (Imperial) or Metric units by flipping the switch in the lower right corner of the map.

The map above is called a mercator projection. What is that? Why does Greenland (in white at the top of the map) look so big?

What direction is ISS moving?
Hint: wait a minute and see how it moves

How fast is ISS moving (see the data on the map)?

How far does ISS move in just 1 second?
Hint: convert mph (or km/h) to miles per second (or km per second).

If you have a globe of the Earth, how far above the globe does ISS orbit?
Note: if you don’t have a globe, you can use a basketball or soccer ball to represent the spherical Earth.
Hint: what is the altitude of ISS above Earth’s surface (see the data on the map)? What is the diameter of the Earth? Define a proportion to compare these dimensions for the real Earth and your model Earth.

The path of ISS on the map above curves up and down (for you trigonometry fans, it looks similar to a sine wave). Where is ISS right now? What is is flying over? What do you think the ‘”-1.5 h” and “+1.5 h” means? What does that tell you for how long it takes ISS to go around the Earth once?
Hint: “h” stands for hours.

The International Space Station orbits the Earth in a plane tilted at an angle to the equator. If you have globe of the Earth (or you’re using a basketball or soccer ball to represent Earth) demonstrate to yourself what that orbit looks like. Why does the path of ISS on the map above curve up and down?


The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S., and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and Nanoracks LLC, working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museumthe International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, and Subaru of America, Inc., are U.S. National Partners on the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. Magellan Aerospace is a Canadian National Partner on the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

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