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A stunning picture was released last month of the American space-shuttle, Endeavour, docked with the International Space Station, photographed by an Italian astronaut as he left the space station in a Russian Soyuz space capsule, a fabulous tribute to international cooperation.

In the 1970’s, while the US was busy with its moon landings, Russia was placing the first of a long line of single module space stations, Salyut, into orbit. In the 1980’s, the US developed its space-shuttles, not only as launchers, but also as orbital laboratories for performing similar experiments to Salyut. The Russians, however, were clocking up more man-hours in space than the Americans, and when they upgraded their space station to Mir in the 1990’s, the Americans felt compelled to plan their own. They named it Freedom, but as budgetary considerations kept it pinned to the drawing board, it soon became known derisively as Fred. Russia’s new space station, Mir-2, was also heading towards budgetary wipe out.

The collapse of communism at the beginning of the 1990’s, however, allowed a new era of international scientific collaboration to emerge with the US, Russia, European Union and Japan coming together to pool resources to build a space station far more ambitious than any of the individual countries could ever have envisaged before. It now has 15 pressurized modules linked together with an integrated truss structure to support enormous solar panels as large as a football field.

At a distance of between 276 and 460 km from the Earth’s surface, the space station is actually quite close to Earth and its array of solar panels can be seen clearly through a telescope. To keep it in orbit, however, it needs to whip round the Earth at a speed of 28 000 km/h, completing 16 orbits a day. For an observer on the ground, this means that it takes less than 10 seconds to cross from one horizon to the other. It’s not easy to catch in a telescope but can be seen with the naked eye in the morning or evening, glinting brightly in the twilight.

The space station will continue in its mission until 2020, but the space-shuttle programme is now ending and Endeavour is being fitted up for a museum. Commercial operators are now expected to take over America’s launches, while NASA is gearing up to putting a man on Mars by the mid 2030’s.

This blog first appeared as an article in the BCA Chronicle of July/August 2011 to promote star gazing in Sinai