Beginning Astronomy / Observational Astronomy / Satellites and Missions

Iridium Flares – Not UFO’s!

iridiumHave you see those weird lights in the sky? Chances are their not UFO’s. Some of them may be Iridium flares! In November I posted about some fun ways to add a quick observing session to a family gathering. One thing I mentioned were Iridium flares. I thought I’d talk a little more about them and what they are.

A satellite flare is sunlight bouncing off the reflective surface of a satellite and sending it directly back to earth. The satellite will appear to flare, or brighten suddenly then disappear. Here’s a link to an animation that shows what a flare looks like.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Flare_Simulation.gif

Iridium satellites are a group of communication satellites that orbit the earth in low earth orbit at about 485 miles above the earth. The ‘constellation’ as it’s called, consists of 66 satellites. They orbit the earth from pole to pole every 100 minutes.

The satellite’s unique shape of three polished door sized panels focuses sunlight directly down to earth, causing what we call ‘Iridium Flares’.

While you may see one of these by chance, you’re more likely to spot one with some outside help. One of our favorite sites is Heavens-above. Once you set it to your location you can click on the link to Iridium Flares. You’ll get a list of visible flares for your location, the brightness, altitude and other pertinent information.

Some of these flares are so bright they are visible in the daytime! I have yet to see one of those, the trouble is that they are dangerously close to the sun (from our perspective) and very difficult to see.

These are always fun to see, and fun to impress your family with.  Find out when a bright flare will happen, then plan to be outside when it does! Make your ‘prediction’ and amaze your friends and family! It’s no rabbit out of a hat, but still fun.

Ta da!

Amy

 

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