If you or a neighbor have a satellite dish sitting in the yard to pick up television signals, then you know where at least one orbiting satellite is located. The dish is pointed right at it! TV satellites, unfortunately, live in geosynchronous orbits approximately 22,000 miles (35,420 km) away, so it is impossible to see them unless you have a big telescope.

However, there are lots of satellites that pass overhead in asynchronous orbits that are only 200 or 300 miles away. If you live in a place that has a very clear sky (where you can still see the Milky Way, for example), simply lie on your back on a moonless night and look carefully. Occasionally you will see something that looks like a star, but it is moving. That's a satellite! This technique works especially well on a boat in the Caribbean, close to the equator.

Until its fiery landing in the Pacific Ocean in Mach 2001, the MIR space station was one of the largest objects orbiting the planet, so large that it was especially easy to see -- if you knew what you were looking for.

For other satellites, this satellite tracking Web site has lots of information. You will need your coordinates for longitude and latitude, available from the USGS Mapping Information Web site or the Xerox PARC Map Viewer.

Other hints:

  • Satellite tracking software is available for predicting orbit passes. Note the exact times.
  • Use binoculars on a clear night when there is not a bright moon.
  • Ensure your watch is set to exactly match a known time standard.
  • A north-south orbit often indicates a spy satellite!

See How Satellites Work for lots more information on satellites and how they get into orbit!