Ask the Weather Guys: Can we see satellites at night? | Localized time


Q: Can we see satellites at night?

A: Yes, you can see satellites in specific orbits as they spend the night.

The viewing is best far from the city lights and in cloudless skies. The satellite will look like a star that moves constantly across the sky for a few minutes. If the lights are flashing, you're probably seeing a plane, not a satellite.

Satellites do not have their own lights that make them visible. What you will see is the sunlight reflected from the satellite, often off the large solar panels that provide energy to the satellites.

These satellites are far above the Earth, about 200 to 300 miles, so while you are in the dark of night, the sunlight can still shine on the satellite. Eventually, the satellite will fly into the shadow of the Earth and suddenly disappear from view.

The International Space Station (ISS) can be very bright. It orbits Earth at an altitude of approximately 215 miles traveling at a speed of 17,200 miles per hour. It is a large object with large, highly reflective solar panels, making it the brightest of human objects orbiting the Earth. It can be as bright as Venus.

You can find out when the ISS is flying over you by visiting this site,, and entering your state and city or selecting one of the nearby cities from a list.

Meteorological satellites that track clouds and whose images are shown in animations on many Web sites are orbiting 22,000 miles above us and appear fixed on the equator. You will not be able to see those who move through the sky.

Steve Ackerman and Jonathan Martin, teachers in the UW-Madison department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, are invited on WHA radio (970 AM) at 11:45 on the last Monday of each month.


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