ISS Notify

Update, August 19:The kickstarter project was a huge success!! Now I have to figure out how to make hundreds of them. In the meantime I hosted a site about the project:
Update, June 13:Thanks everyone for their comments and feedback! For everyone who is interested in buying one, check out my kickstater page! If enough people back the project I can start making them!

A while ago I helped make a light that lit up when a near Earth asteroid went past our planet. Because I built it at a 24 hour hack day, I only had a little bit of time and there was a lot of ‘crafting’ involved (read: hot glue and plastic cups). Unfortunately I never really worked it into a finished product. This was partly because I noticed how rarely an asteroid actually buzzes the Earth close enough to be interesting. It got me thinking though, what else might I want to know about, and that happens often enough to be interesting?

The Space Station

The ISS in space

The Space Station and Space Shuttle Endeavor in May 2011. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) is a marvel of current technology and humanity. It's a continuously inhabited orbital outpost, floating in space just over our heads. But often we forget it's there. I realized that the light I made for asteroids would work better for the space station.

This time I would make it a more polished project.

ISS Lamp from Nathan Bergey on Vimeo.


I already had the electronics from the old light, all I had to do was put it in a reasonable container. I decided to use a nice black cardboard box I had lying around. Then to have something to light up I went to the fantastic Scrap! in Portland to look for old bits of plexiglass. Armed with a nice piece of frosted plexiglass (a grand total of 10¢) and a box I got to work.

I took apart the old lamp and instead of having a ring of LEDs on a drinking cup, I glued them to the bottom edge of the plexiglass.

Soldering LED's

In the process of soldering LEDs that have been glued to the edge of a piece of plexiglass

Then I soldered them together in parallel. The microcontroller stayed the same as last time, a Teensy 2.0. I already had a breakout board built with headers for the teensy and with transistors to act as switches. So all I had to do was wire it up and put the box together.

boxing it up

Boxing the finished project up


The hard part was figuring out when the Space station was going to be overhead. No matter what I would need the internet because the orbit of the station changes unpredictably from time to time. Luckily, rather than having to do orbital calculations myself, there is a great website out there called heavens above that has all the predictions of satellite passes already worked out. There was one problem: they don't have an API! That means a human could go read the website, but a computer doesn't really know what to make of it — it's not what we can ‘machine readable’. I wanted this to run automatically so I found some examples on the web that showed how easy it is to scrape data from the heavens above webpage. With that coded I had a python scrip that would grab the next ISS pass for Portland.

But again, wanting this to be automatic I needed something better than a script I would have to run every so often. I settled on a gnome applet that can run in the background on my panel on my desktop. For those of you who don't run linux, this is like the dock in OSX or the application bar in windows. I found plenty of examples online on how to write an app for the gnome panel, and thankfully it was pretty easy! After a couple of days of working out the details I had an app that sat on my computer and could let me know when the space station was overhead!

gnome applet

The applet running on my computer showing the next pass information

Open Source

There is only one of me, so the usefulness of this lamp as an outreach tool for everyone is limited. So I posted all the code and hardware descriptions you should need to make one yourself! Follow along on github:

I have a circuit diagram, arduino firmware, the python applet and an install script in the repository. Plus, if your running linux and use gnome, you can use the applet even without the lamp! The icon will turn red when the ISS is overhead. Look at the readme and update the code to make it work with your location and your hardware.

And don't forget the space station isn't just for fun but is a working laboratory and scientific outpost that streams down terabytes of data about the world we live in, making it a better place for all of us.

This entry was posted in Projects and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted June 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Wow, great project! I'm in an upcoming exhibition and will def. incorporate the ISS data into my light display, awesome to learn about the Heavens Above site.

  2. Posted June 9, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks! Glad I could be helpful. Let me know how your project turns out!

  3. Posted June 9, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Can't wait to have one on my bedside table. Maybe a future iteration plays the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey when the ISS is overhead!

  4. Digital Ruse
    Posted June 9, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I think there could be a real market for something like this. Maybe if you can find a way to produce them you can throw it up on kick starter or something.

    Nicely done, regardless.

  5. Posted June 9, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Wow, excellent! Does it only light up for visible passes, or all?

  6. Posted June 9, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    It lights up for all passes. My idea was to help show what was previously invisible. On any given day (below about 55 deg latitude) the station probably goes overhead at least once! But without an indicator of some kind you may never know!

  7. Steve
    Posted June 9, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    I love this idea! I would buy one if it were available commercially, Don't have the time or knowledge to do this myself. I see a market for this.

  8. foobrew
    Posted June 9, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Just installed it on Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx and it runs great. Thanks building it!

  9. Tara Brown
    Posted June 9, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Wow...That is genius. First, I felt my my own IQ rising just reading about your project. Sadly , the further I read, the dumber I felt. Wow..I should take some new courses and brush up! Keep up the great work and kudos on the imagination and originality.

  10. Posted June 10, 2011 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    Cool project. I have a friend who would love to emulate that project.
    There might be a market for USB powered (or even wireless) devices that activate on events like this.

  11. John
    Posted June 10, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Humble (though maybe unreasonable) upgrade suggestion: Add other orbiting objects to the applet--satellites, say--and a way to select the ones you want to track. Then add a text display to the light that shows what is passing over.

  12. shutupandtakemymoney
    Posted June 10, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    take it! TAKE IT!!

  13. pam
    Posted June 10, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Wow... really cool project. I'm especially interested in the programming part of it. Can you direct me to those examples on how to get data from the Heavens Above website? I tried googling for them, but I can't find anything (I don't know the right keywords). Your code is understandable (even to someone who doesn't know Python--like me), but it would be great if I can get something with a more detailed explanation.

  14. Posted June 11, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    That's a fine idea! Hopefully in the future I can work that functionality in.

    I did the same thing and never found any good explanations. I just ended up figuring it out. I'll more comments in the code the explain how it works. Check back in a few days for updates!

  15. R
    Posted June 12, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Don't have the time or patience to mock one up, but would totally buy one! You put in a lot of effort- kudos! Great idea!

  16. paulds
    Posted June 12, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Very cool, thanks Nathan. Got the Gnome applet running on Fedora... FWIW, the required package names differ slightly; it's pyserial instead of python-serial; gnome-python2-applet instead of python-gnomeapplet; and I'm not sure what you're using the Ubuntu "install" package for, since you don't appear to be using /usr/bin/install in your, but if that's what you need, on Fedora this is in the coreutils package.

    One question: in the localization changes in, is the timezone field DST-aware or no? Just wondering whether I should simply set "EST" and leave it at that, or whether I'd need to change it to "EDT" when DST is in effect to get accurate timestamps?

  17. Posted June 12, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    @paulds Thanks for the advice! I'm glad you could make it work. A general comment on code: I don't know what I'm doing :) This was *supposed* to be a quick hack. I'm trying to clean it up since lots of people seem to want to duplicate it but I've never really prepared something for release before. I'm taking a crash course in making things distributable. Check back from time to time on github for updates. Also "install" is the parameter to apt-get, not a package ;)

    To answer your question about localization: I don't know. I think that heavens above will do the right thing in daylight savings time (ie, _ST will actually work year round) but I don't know. They don't have an option for UTC!!!!!! I'm looking for a better solution.

  18. Peter
    Posted June 12, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    This is fantastic! I'm going to make this for my dad, and add a few other satellites I think. He's an amateur ham radio guy and will surely get a kick out of this for fathers day!

  19. Rawnnie
    Posted June 13, 2011 at 3:25 am | Permalink

    Saw this on Gizmodo. As an avid space-lover, I totally like your work!! Could you or anyone else please port that Next Pass applet that notifies you when the ISS is above you to Windows or OS X? That'd be super awesome! (Unless one already exists?)

  20. Posted June 13, 2011 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    It's great !!!!

  21. Dimitris Tzortzis
    Posted June 13, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Great, great job! well done! Just this evening I was marvelling at the ISS and I was thinking how to create a notifier to tell me when I'm going to see it next time. A couple of hours later I found your project while browsing the web. Amazing... :)
    I'll built the arduino too at some point. thanks m8 ;)

  22. Dimitris Tzortzis
    Posted June 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    next step, build this:
    to start counting down automatically when the ISS is near ;)

  23. Ed Tomme
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    What a great tool! A suggestion to make it even better: could the light blink for a few minutes before the ISS becomes visible so that there is some reasonable amount of warning that one should go outside to try to see the pass?

  24. Steve Castro
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    You lost me after the information left the lamp making phase and went light speed. I am a wizard electrician, but alas, computer cro-magnon. How can I help?

  25. Roger McKay
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    A very cool idea. How about using a small globe and where you are located on the planet there could be a fixed mini space station in geosynchronous orbit. Have it light up over your virtual home. I like the idea of the asteroids also and why not have them light up as rare events.

  26. Posted June 15, 2011 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    @Rawnnie: I'm still working on the software! Bear with me. If you want to help, you can donate to the kickstater project (at the top of the page)

    @Dimitris: Thanks! I would love to have a giant countdown clock. Maybe after I get this going.

    @Ed Tomme: I'm working on making that a feature. Stay tuned.

    @Roger: Great ideas. I want to expand what it can do with things like asteroids.

  27. Posted June 15, 2011 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    loved it ;)

  28. Posted June 22, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Hey, what about some additional LEDs that indicate what kind of object it s that passes? These LEDs could be reprogrammable. One could indicate satellites, anothee could indicate meteorites, some could indicate an individual object (like ISS). That would give you a better chance of knowing what cool things to look for.

  29. Posted July 8, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Wow, Nathan, this is brilliant. After straining my neck staring at the sky a couple of days ago, this project is not only an awesome space project, but good for chiropractic health, too. I'm an associate editor at, and we'd love for you to share your project with our huge community. Perhaps a few will even contribute to your Kickstarter page?

    If you'd like to get yourself a hot slice of 10 million views/month, please set up a free instructables account and post what you've got here. We're currently running a Space contest with some pretty slick prizes, and this project would definitely be a contender for the grand prize. It shouldn't be too onerous to copy-paste the text and use the existing pictures, so adding it wouldn't take you long. Let me know if you're interested or need any help.

    Great work! And thanks for sharing it with everyone.

  30. Henry Wyndon
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Very cool! I want to set up a 2''x3' (or larger) version in the lobby at NASA-JSC. Give me a call.

  31. HaRo
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    why don't u use an ENC28J60 for ethernet connection?
    If u do so, u can parse the http resonse from the heavens-above page (there's no api needed), so u don't need a pc anymore.


  32. Logan
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Wow dude. NASA found your project and liked it. You are on the way to success man, haha.

  33. Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Spot on with this write-up, I truly assume this web site wants

    way more consideration. I’ll probably be again to learn rather more, thanks for that info.

  34. Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    Excellent post. I used to be checking continuously
    this blog and I am

    inspired! Very useful information specially the

    ultimate section :) I deal with such

    information much. I used to be looking for this particular info

    for a long time. Thanks and good luck.

30 Trackbacks

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>