Does the International Space Station orbit the Earth with one side constantly facing the Earth? Or does it look more like the Earth is orbiting the ISS from its perspective?


Once it goes into orbit, it will remain in the same attitude, what I mean is the cupola the astronauts look out of always looks "down," was far as I know. I don't think the ISS has any spin, so it should stay in the same position.

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The International Space Station orbits about 354 kilometers (220 miles) above the Earth and travels at approximately  27,700 km/hr (17,211 mph), so it takes about 92 minutes to circle the Earth once. For this reason, every 45 minutes the astronauts on-board see a sunrise or a sunset, with a total of 15 – 16 of each every 24 hours.

Actually, if the astronauts see the maximum number of sunrises possible, then it must effectively point down, but I will try to answer James's point about a slight spin if I can find an orbital illustration.

I would imagine, no matter what their physical senses say, the astronauts will see the earth as if from a very high flying plane, which some, or most , are used to anyway.

It would take a large amount of fuel to move the ISS, and to kill the AM, so the loading craft would do as much of the manoeuvring as possible.

ISS Manoeuvres

No more million-dollar maneuvers. When the space station must rotate for operations such as docking of resupply vehicles, it uses thrusters that run on propellant costing nearly $10,000 per pound. This demonstration successfully rotated the station 90 and 180 degrees without propellant, saving more than 1 million dollars worth of propellant on the 180-degree maneuver. The new technology uses gyroscopes, or spinning momentum-storage devices powered by solar energy, to maneuver along special attitude trajectories. It will substantially reduce propellant use and contamination of solar arrays and loads. With this technology, long-duration space exploration missions can carry less propellant and more provisions.

  • $\begingroup$ That is the impression I got as well, that if you make a time-lapse video looking out the window you see the whole Earth seemingly "turning before your eyes". But this would only be possible if the ISS were to constantly be turning as well, right? $\endgroup$ – Alex Sep 10 '15 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ That is a magnificent picture. To use that as the example, while looking out that window will an astronaut always see the Earth? $\endgroup$ – Alex Sep 10 '15 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ I was under the impression that if the ISS didn't rotate constantly, it would actually not stay in the same orientation relative to Earth, and so it has a slight spin to keep it seemingly static? $\endgroup$ – James Thorpe Sep 10 '15 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ I would say yes, afaik the astronauts definitely asked for it to be put it, (cabin fever) even though it's possibly a safety hazard, and I know the Apollo astronauts nearly had fights over looking out the tiny, dirty, little windows they had. I think that cupola always points down, but I know they can see straight out as well, not sure about straight up though. The main proviso is to keep the solar panels as effective as possible, plus don't use fuel you don't need to in needless rotations. $\endgroup$ – user81619 Sep 10 '15 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ @JamesThorpe You could be correct, nothing immediate jumps ups out at me from Google and possibly it has slight spin for both solar panels and observing instruments effectiveness . I will update the answer if I find anything $\endgroup$ – user81619 Sep 10 '15 at 20:24

Yes. Under any normal operating mode today, the station rotates at the rate of once per orbit so that a particular part of the station always points at the earth. This is almost identical to the way the moon orbits the earth.

But this is not something that has to happen. During assembly, there were times when the station did not rotate. So if there were an observer on the station, they would see the earth move all the way around the station.

This ISS attitudes page from NASA has some animations of these attitudes.


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