This visualization shows the current location of the International Space Station (ISS), actually the point above the Earth that the station is closest to. It is approximately 260 miles (420 km) above the Earth’s surface The station began construction in 1998 and had its first long term residents in 2000.
The visualization can also show the animated future orbital path of the ISS using ephemeris calculations, which makes a nice, cool pattern over an approximately 3.9 day cycle, where it starts to repeat. The animation allows you to view the orbital patterns on the globe (orthographic projection) or a mercator or equirectangular projection.
One of the cooler features is to drag and rotate the globe view while the orbital paths are being drawn. You can also adjust the speed of the orbit as well as keep the ISS centered in your view while the globe spins around underneath it. If you select the “rotate earth” checkbox, it becomes apparent that the ISS is in a circular orbit around the earth and that the pattern being made is simply a function of the earth’s rotation underneath the orbit.
This visualization only shows the approximate location of the ISS as there are several confounding factors that are not represented here. The speed of the ISS changes somewhat over time as the station experiences a small amount of atmospheric drag, which slows the station over time. But it still goes over 7000 meters per second or about 17000 miles per hour. As it slows, its orbit decays so it falls closer to earth and it experiences even more atmospheric drag. Occasionally, the station is boosted up to a higher orbit to counteract this decay. Secondly the earth is not a perfect sphere and this also causes the calculations to be only approximately correct.
Some other cool facts about the International Space Station:
Other cool space-related orbital art can be seen at the inner planet spirographs.
Here are a couple of images showing the final pattern made by the ISS on different map projections.
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This visualization looks at the variation in the amount of sunlight different latitudes receive over the different days of the year. The amount of sunlight can be classified in 3 different categories:
The default view is to see the number of hours of sunlight received by latitude on the current date, shown by the yellow bars. The sunlight hours range from 0 to 24 hours per day while most latitudes range from 9 to 15 hours.
If you hover over the yellow bars (or click on mobile), you will see the exact number of hours for that latitude band for that date.
Pressing the ‘Start Animation’ button, will change the angle of the sun relative to the Earth (as the earth rotates around the sun) and change the distribution of sunlight across the globe. You can view this animation with the earth fixed and the sun angle changing (the default view) or with the sun location fixed and the earth’s tilt changing.
This visualization helps to show how the seasons come about. When the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the sun, the amount of sunlight it receives increases (hours of daylight, average sun intensity and total amount of sunlight received). As the hemisphere tilts away from the sun, the amount of sunlight it receives decreases. The amount of sunlight a region receives causes the seasons that we experience.
Interestingly, when you are at the equator, the amount of sunlight per day does not really vary too significantly over the course of the year, whereas if you are near the poles, the difference between summer and winter is very dramatic. When looking at total sunlight received, the poles generally have lower sunlight because even in their summer, there is much lower land area relative to the middle latitudes (close to the equator)
The second visualization shown here shows how the tilt of the Earth’s axis is changed over the course of the Earth’s revolution around the sun. The Earth’s axis is tilted at 23.5 degrees relative to the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Like the last visualization, you can look at Earth the way we normally do (without the tilted axis) or from the perspective of the sun (with a tilted axis). This makes it a bit clearer why the tilt of the Earth’s axis can change from the north pole angled away to angled towards the sun.
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This visualization shows the phases of the moon. It’s a fairly simple visualization that shows a photo of the moon and covers it with a shadow to show only the lit up portion of the moon. Half of the moon is always lit up (half of the sphere) but we can usually only see part of the lit up portion.
You can use the slider to control the opacity of the shadow. There is a button that lets you start and stop the animation and you can also step through the animation with the ‘Back’ and ‘Forward’ buttons or the left and right arrow keys.
These are combined to get eight different distinct phases:
The moon goes through these phases once every 29.5 days. Because it’s not exactly a whole number of days, the size of each crescent isn’t exactly the same each lunar cycle. The rate of change in the size of the lit up portion of the moon is fastest when the moon is close to a quarter moon and slowest when the moon is closest to a new moon or full moon. This has to do with the way the light is projected onto a 3D sphere but viewed as a 2D disc.
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Earlier, I had made a visualization showing that Mercury is the closest planet to Earth (on average) and not Venus or Mars. To make that, I downloaded a bunch of NASA ephemeris (orbital) data. I realized I could use the same data to make some cool orbital art inspired by a spirograph – a planetary spirograph.
Basically, you get to choose a planet and the visualization will draw a line connecting that planet and Earth every few days. These lines will then build up into a cool pattern over 40 earth years of orbital cycles. Each planet (Mercury, Venus and Mars) has a different orbital period around the sun than Earth does and as a result, interesting patterns emerges.
Orbital periods of the four inner rocky planets:
Also evident is that the orbits of some of the planets are not quite circular so the pattern isn’t quite centered on the sun. Venus has the most regular pattern, creating a distinctive 5-lobed design. The other planets also have visually stunning patterns, though they do not repeat perfectly over time.
You can change the planets using the drop down menu as well as change the speed of the spirograph, and hide the planets and the sun.
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We all learned the order of planets in school. In my case using the mnemonic, My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas (MVEMJSUNP) for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars Jupiter Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Since Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet, you could change the Nine Pizzas to Noodles or something else.
And in terms of distances, Venus’s orbit (0.72 AU, or Astronomical Units (i.e. 1 AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun) is closer to Earth’s orbit (1 AU by definition) than Mercury’s (varies between 0.31 and 0.47 AU because of it’s more elliptical orbit) or Mars’ (1.5 AU).
However, I saw an article, stating that Mercury might in fact be the closest planet to Earth (on average) so I thought I’d whip up a visualization that shows which planet is closest as a function of the planetary orbits around the sun.
Because of where the planets are on these orbital paths, and specifically the time it takes Mercury to orbit the sun, Mercury is the planet that is closest to Earth more often and has an average distance to Earth that is lower than the other 2 inner planets. Mars is occasionally the closest as well, but on average much further than Mercury or Venus. Also interesting is that Mercury is, on average, about 1 AU away from Earth, which is the same as the distance to the Sun.
This simulation shows how the planet positions vary each day over a 30 year period and the regularity with which the distance between Earth and the other varies over time. Mercury has the shortest period while Mars has the longest. You can change the speed of the simulation to speed up or slow down the orbits of the planets.
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