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Travel news and advice

How to see ‘Santa’s Sleigh’ from Asia this Christmas (hint: it’s the International Space Station)

  • The global orbiter will be visible in the skies above Asia for several minutes on Monday and Tuesday
  • Orbiting 400km above Earth, and travelling at 27,600km/h, it will be impossible to mistake for anything else. What to tell your children? That’s up to you
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 10:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 10:45am

Children in Hong Kong on Christmas Eve will get a special treat this year when “Santa” makes a particularly bright fly-past in his space-sleigh.

What they will see is something that looks like a bright, white star moving quickly from West to East. Visible over the skies of Hong Kong, Tokyo, Beijing and many other locations in Asia this Christmas, this is the International Space Station (ISS). Lacking flashing lights and moving at high speed, it will be impossible to confuse it with aircraft if you are expecting it.

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Orbiting 400km above Earth, the ISS moves at 17,150 miles per hour (27,600km/h), about 10 times faster than a speeding bullet. However, if there are clear early-morning skies, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the ISS should be easy to see – it always appears in the West and sinks in the East, taking between three and six minutes to cross the sky over each country.

The ISS orbits Earth every 90 minutes, but is only visible close to sunrise and sunset in any one location, when the sun’s light reflects from its large solar panels.

In Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the easiest pass to see will begin at 6.05am on Christmas Eve, when the ISS will be in the sky for six minutes before disappearing.

However, it is South Korea and Japan that are in absolute prime position, with the longest, brightest passes predicted to occur directly over those countries.

They may not actually be delivering presents, but the crew of the ISS are getting ready for Christmas. US astronaut Anne McClain, who reached the ISS last week, shared a photo on Twitter of a Christmas Elf next to a machine called the Minus Eighty-Degree Laboratory Freezer ISS (MELFI). “Ohhhh I see what you did here ... ELF ON THE MELFI!” she wrote. “And yes buddy, those are cold temperatures – colder than the North Pole. They preserve our science samples until we can get them back to scientists on the ground.”

Work on building the ISS began just over 20 years ago, and it has hosted more than 230 astronauts from 18 countries.

The orbiting space laboratory usually hosts six astronauts. You can find out how many astronauts are up there and how long they have been in orbit by visiting How Many People Are In Space Right Now.

Since December 3, 58 astronauts have entered the ISS. McClain, Canadian David Saint-Jacques and Oleg Kononenko, from Russia, will make up the station’s “Christmas Crew”.

As for what to tell children when the ISS appears in the sky, it is the perfect excuse to say that it is Santa out delivering gifts on Christmas Eve, and being pulled across the sky by his reindeer.

On the other hand, as they watch the ISS glide through space, you could tell them the truth – that they’re seeing three astronauts – one American, one Canadian and a Russian – spending their first Christmas in space just a couple of weeks after getting there on a Russian space rocket.

After all, one of humanity's greatest achievements deserves some proper recognition, do not you think?

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How to spot Santa’s Sleigh

Here are the times and durations of ISS passes over other cities in Asia this Christmas Eve and Christmas Day according to Nasa.

If your city is not featured here, visit Nasa’s Spot The Station and punch in your location.

Hong Kong – 6.05am Christmas Eve (6 minutes)

Beijing – 6.53am Christmas Day (6 minutes)

Shanghai – 6.08am Christmas Eve (6 minutes) and 5.18am Christmas Day (4 minutes)

Chengdu, China – 6.51am Christmas Day (5 minutes)

Taipei – 5.18am Christmas Day (3 minutes)

Tokyo – 6.20am Christmas Day (5 minutes)

Seoul – 7.10am Christmas Eve (6 minutes) and 6.18am Christmas Day (6 minutes)

Hanoi – 5.05am Christmas Eve (4 minutes)