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Seeing Satellites

December 29, 2015

Yes, you can see satellites from Earth, but it isn't easy.

An image of the night sky with the top of a tree in the lower right corner; on the left, a bright white streak crosses the night sky
This time lapse, taken on January 10, 2008, shows the International Space Station crossing the night sky.

Ever wonder if you can see NOAA satellites from Earth?

You can! But it can be very difficult. At their brightest, NOAA satellites have an apparent magnitude of +5.5, which is pretty faint.

The apparent magnitude of an object describes how bright it appears in the sky from Earth. The brighter an object appears to us, the lower its magnitude value. The sun, for example, has an apparent magnitude of -26.7, while the faintest stars seen in an urban neighborhood with the naked eye tend to have an apparent magnitude of +3 to +4. In fact, the average naked eye can only see objects up to around +6.5 apparent magnitude.

To make matters more difficult, satellites are relatively small and not very reflective compared to other things we see in space like the Space Shuttle, International Space Station and, of course, the moon and stars.

However, if you have a good viewing location away from large cities, where the Milky Way would be visible for instance, you can try to spot NOAA satellites. The GOES geostationary satellites are about 22,300 miles above Earth's Equator and require a telescope to see, but you may be able to see a polar orbiting satellite (orbiting about 500 miles about Earth’s surface) with just a pair of binoculars or, if it’s dark enough, just your eyes!

Magnitude List: This table gives a list of some commonly known objects and their apparent magnitudes.

Apparent MagnitudeCelestial Object-26.7Sun-12.6Full Moon-4.4Venus (at Brightest)-3.0Mars(at Brightest)-1.6Sirius(at Brightest)+3.0Naked eye in an urban Neighborhood+5.5Uranus(at Brightest)+6.0Naked Eye Limit+9.5Faintest object visible with binoculars+13.7Pluto(at Brightest)+30Faintest observable by the Hubble Telescope

Image of a Magnitude table

You can use the Heavens-Above website to find spotting information for any location worldwide and track NOAA satellites in their current orbits. You can also track satellite orbits on your iPhone using the SkyView Satellite Guide App.

To get an idea of what a satellite is currently viewing, click here.