Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Zoom out to watch them all orbit Earth at once.
Floating in space among the stars and planets are more than 2,250 satellites and “space junk” traveling at up to 18,000 miles an hour. Some are large enough to be seen with the naked eye—though you’d have to first figure out which ones are within your line of sight.
Luckily, there’s a map for that now, by Patricio Gonzalez Vivo, a graphics engineer at Mapzen who has a knack for turning pure data into mesmerizing visuals (like this one of New York City). His latest project, Line of Sight, traces the orbital path of more than a thousand of those satellites and predicts their current location using open-source data from tracking sites like CelesTrak and SatNogs. Plug in your address (or choose one of the pre-selected cities) to see if there are any satellites—shown as yellow dots—nearby. Or zoom out to watch all the satellites orbit the Earth at once in a dazzling visualization.
The map is still a work in progress, and Gonzalez Vivo hopes that people will eventually use it to watch satellites in real time. Currently if you hover over a path, a box pops up with the satellite’s name, height, operational status, and visibility. It’ll also tell you the angle and elevation to look, but it’ll take a bit of observation to figure out when the best time is to go outside.
Line of Sight isn’t the only tool out there for satellite spotting, which has become a hobby for many. Heavens Above, one of the most popular sites for satellite tracking, gets more than 400,000 page views a day, mostly from the U.S. and the U.K. But its visitor map shows that viewers come from all over the world, from South America to Africa to parts of Asia. There are a handful of satellite-tracking sites online, but Gonzalez Vivo’s map is truly captures the grandeur of it all.
@rachelbinx really??! Wow I made to nasa?? Wow! Thanks! you made my day : )— PatricioGonzalezVivo (@patriciogv) November 19, 2015
The map’s even captured the attention of a NASA employee. “I have a friend who works in NASA and she sent me a tweet [asking] if I can add a feature where you can search for a specific satellite,” Gonzalez Vivo says, giggling. “I was very excited that they wanted to use [the map] in NASA to show it to somebody else.”
Gonzalez Vivo admits that he has yet to use his tool to spot satellites in real life, mostly because the light-pollution in Brooklyn makes it difficult to do so. But he says that once he goes upstate for the holidays, he’ll put all his hard work to the test.