Exploring how NASA worked with a custom software design and development company to create a spectacular AR-infused experience for viewing the International Space Station
Look up at the night sky. No, that bright light steadily gliding across the stars is not a bird nor a plane (nor Superman!) — it’s the International Space Station (ISS), a football field-sized spacecraft orbiting 250-plus miles above Earth.
Thanks to NASA’s innovative “Spot the Station” app, developed and maintained by Solwey Consulting, you can now watch the largest modular space station in low Earth orbit pass overhead. Unveiling a celestial spectacle, this custom mobile application allows users to track the trajectory of the ISS and even see its live position projected via augmented reality (AR) right on their smartphone’s camera view.
By utilizing interactive maps, customizable alerts and an AR-enabled viewfinder, Spot the Station equips stargazers everywhere to spot and track the ISS.
How Augmented Reality Creates a Unique Skywatching Experience
Augmented reality — an interactive experience that fuses the real world with computer-generated content — lies at the core of this unique application. Harnessing AR to combine real and virtual worlds, real-time interaction and accurate projection of 3D and 2D models of virtual and real objects, Spot the Station superimposes the space station’s trajectory onto a user’s surroundings through the smartphone’s camera view.
Leveraging AR to deliver constructive overlaid sensory information connects the digital and the tangible in a unique and engaging way. Standing in a driveway, park or backyard on a clear evening, anyone can point their phone’s camera skyward and witness the ISS glide overhead as if it were just within arm’s reach instead of hundreds of miles higher in space.
Given Spot the Station’s ability to calculate the station’s precise spatial coordinates in near real-time based on the user’s geolocation, the app can render an accurate AR animation of the ISS moving across the visible night sky. Users can also select their preferred locations and receive custom notifications for upcoming sighting opportunities. Want to know when you can catch sight of the ISS from your location or when traveling halfway around the world? Enter Spot the Station. Input any city across the globe and instantly gain access to a schedule of upcoming ISS sighting opportunities.
The app also provides significant information about the ISS itself — from up-to-date news and background details to real-time altitude, velocity and position data. Users can even experience the thrill of spotting the orbiting laboratory, viewing interactive 2D and 3D maps tracing the station’s current path as it circles the Earth roughly every 90 minutes while traveling over 17,000 miles per hour. Moreover, the app factors the station’s position above the horizon and lighting conditions, curating an optimal viewing experience based on daylight, nighttime or twilight conditions.
Solwey developed the open-source React Native code for both the mobile application’s front and back ends, which is shared between the iOS and Android versions. Through this innovative use of code, the app retrieves real-time data from the space station, calculates its live trajectory and aligns it with the user’s provided location almost instantaneously, which required meticulous planning and technical prowess.
This captivating application of AR enhances the stargazing experience and helps foster a deeper connection with the ISS and other celestial marvels. By delivering personalized ISS sighting information and opportunities, Spot the Station helps foster awareness of its scientific mission. Students can learn more about life in microgravity, researchers can track ongoing experiments taking place onboard and casual viewers can simply appreciate the marvel of human space technology.
Bringing the ISS that Much Closer to Earth
Through Solwey Consulting’s expertise and NASA’s visionary approach, Spot the Station transforms skywatching into an immersive experience that effectively brings the ISS closer to Earth. The Spot the Station app’s convergence of augmented reality and our curiosity about the cosmos illustrates the boundless possibilities of technology in bridging the gap between Earth and outer space.
As we look skyward, the mobile app serves as a reminder that our global pursuit of knowledge knows no bounds — and technology is frequently the catalyst that inspires, educates and brings us closer to the mysteries of the universe. Developing the Spot the Station app was one small step for the NASA and Solwey teams but a giant leap in connecting people across the planet with scientific achievements beyond our world.