It's a bird … it's a plane … it's the ISS!

First impressions 

Ever since I was very young (not so long ago, cheeky monkeys), I have loved films and programs about outer space. I grew up with the “Star Wars” trilogy, before Jar Jar Binks, CGI effects and a wooden Hayden Christensen ruined the prequels, and drank in series like “Star Trek” and “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” What the heck was the name of that robot in “Buck Rogers”? Was it Twiki? 

Anyhoo, suffice it to say that like many of my peers, I found information about the stars and beyond to be fascinating. Therefore, hearing about the ISS Spotter app peaked my interest. For those not in the know, the ISS is better known as the International Space Station, which orbits Earth at about 250 miles up, moving at over 17,000 mph or nearly 5 miles every second. That’s even faster than Usain Bolt. 

It has been continuously occupied for over 14 years, and completes (according to Wikipedia) 15.54 orbits every day. What does that mean for those of us bound to terra firma? Well, the station has provided some pretty stunning images of the planet over the years, including severe storm systems, and is used for experiments in a number of different fields. Beyond that, it’s just really, really cool. 

The ISS Spotter app allows you to have the distinct thrill of seeing the ISS cross the night sky, by providing you with exact dates and times when it can be spotted in your area. Beyond the fact that it’s free (that alone should have you running, not walking, to grab your device), there’s just something exciting about looking toward the heavens and espying an incredible piece of machinery that has been hurtling through space for years. 

Credit where it’s due – my friend Carol Rouse alerted me and my friend Lynne Firth to the existence of this app, and apparently we’re quite late to the party. Turns out that people have been turning their eyes skyward for years now. 

I simply had to download it. 

How it works 

It asks for your location once you open it as, let’s face it, without that information it won’t be able to give you accurate data, and all you’ll end up with is a stiff neck. Once you allow it to find you, you’ll get a screen with a map of the world on it, and a yellow line plotting the course of the ISS. This will be a pretty zoomed version of the map, and the usual pinching gesture doesn’t help you to zoom out. If you want the larger picture, simply tap on the house icon in the top left hand corner of the screen.

This will give you a better view of the world, and will point out your current location. You can use your finger to swipe the map in one direction or the other, following the route of the ISS, represented by a white cross moving along the yellow line. 

As I moved across Europe and the huge collection of “stan” countries (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan …) that followed, I realized how lousy my grasp of geography was. Shame on me. 

Next, you can tap on “Forecast,” which gives you a list of upcoming dates and times when the ISS will be visible above your part of the world. The stars in the brackets denote how clear a view you’ll have. The more stars there are, the better the view. 

When you find a date or time that suits you, tap on it to get more information. You’re told the exact time, to the second, that the ISS should become visible; its peak time; and finally, the time that it will disappear. There’s only about six minutes in it, so be prepared. It will also give you the direction it’s coming from, and where it’s going (S, SE, NE, and so on). 

Tap on “Settings” along the bottom of the screen, and you can set a host of alarms so you don’t miss a single fly-by, along with adjusting such things as location services, time and distance formats. 

Want to know more about the ISS? You can look under the “INFO” heading in Settings, to find ISS quick facts, get help on how to use the app, and, most importantly, how to donate a small amount of money to support the app’s development. You can donate as little as $0.99, or as much as $2.99. Hardly a great deal of money for such a cool app. 

When I tried it 

Lynne and I went outside my house one balmy evening with her iPhone in hand, ready to spot the ISS. Thankfully there’s very little light pollution in my area, and the sky was pretty clear, so we figured this would be a cinch. 

The station was supposed to be visible between 19:10:32 and 19:19:06 p.m., so at precisely 19:10, we swung our heads up, and started to scan the heavens. What followed was a pathetic exchange that we can only hope the neighbors didn’t hear: 



“No, I think that’s a plane.” 

“Are you sure? It looks pretty high up.” 

“Well, planes fly pretty high.” 

“Not really …” 

“Whaddya call 30,000 feet?” 

“Okay, maybe … Oo! There it is! Over there!” 

“Yes! Yes! That’s it!” 

“Hmmm … actually, might be another plane …” 

“Yeah … I think I see flashing lights.” 

“WAIT, WAIT! What’s that over there? Is that moving??” 

“That’s a star. The clouds are moving.” 

“Hang on, I think that’s DEFINITELY it over there – look! It’s obviously high up, and no flashing lights.” 

“Yep, I see it! Yes, that’s definitely it!” (Sound of slapping a mosquito) 

“Let’s go inside. Wasn’t that great?” 

“Yeah! Wow! The International Space Station – pretty fantastic!” 


Really, can you put a price on that kind of fun? 

Final thoughts 

We have gone out twice since the first try, and every time we’ve seen the ISS. It takes at least a minute from its visibility time for us to zoom in on its location, but we always find it. Just so you don’t mix it up with a plane, I’ll tell you that it doesn’t flash. It is a bright light, making its way very deliberately across the sky. 

It really is exciting when you realize what you’re seeing, and is absolutely something you should get the kids outside to enjoy. This is a simple, yet very effective app, and connects us to an extraordinary piece of technology, manned by human beings, many miles above our planet. Woo-hoo! 


Free (but I recommend you donate). Fascinating. Really cool. 


Realizing your knowledge of geography is rubbish. Mistaking lots of planes for the ISS. 

ISS Spotter by Mediapilot

  • Cost: Free

  • Seller: Martin van Mierloo

  • Devices: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch
Rating: E for Everyone 

Look for the ISS Spotter icon in the App Store.


The International Space Station orbits Earth about 250 miles up.


The International Space Station orbits Earth about 250 miles up.


Get precise dates, times and levels of visibility for your specific area.


Your location is noted on the map.


The ISS Spotte
r app offers precise times, to the second, when the space station will appear and disappear on any given date.


Follow the ISS as it makes its way across the world.


Zoom in to see exactly where the space station is located at any time.

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