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.

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!



A Long Road to Divorce Court

If you haven’t had your head stuck in the sand lately, you’ve heard about the marsInspiration Mars Foundation’s recent proposal to send an older, “tested” couple to Mars in 2018. Dennis Tito, former space tourist on a 2001 Russian Souyez mission, is leading the foundation’s efforts to raise the $1 billion needed to make this journey a reality.

Because of my own first reaction to the idea of spending 501 straight days in outer space in a rocket-fueled closet with my husband, I decided to ask spouses of my friends how they think the trip would work out for them. Not surprisingly, it was universally considered a very bad idea.

Here is a general gist of their comments:

  • We might as well get divorced right now and get it over with.
  • No way. I’d murder him within the first two weeks.
  • She’d probably break something before we even left the atmosphere.
  • At least they’d have a flight plan so we wouldn’t have to stop and ask for directions.
  • We’d never make it back because when stuff started breaking, he’d never get around to fixing it.
  • After about three weeks of non-stop whining, I’d open the hatch and walk home by myself.
  • Could I just send my husband?
  • We should put some cameras in there and make it a reality show!
  • If she drives, we’ll end up at Venus.

I will leave it to your imagination to guess which one was my reaction.

I’ve given this a lot of thought since it was announced, and the only way that Tito can think this is a good idea is because he only spent seven days up there with a bunch of strangers with limited English skills. His wife was no where in sight.

I say, c’mon Tito, lead the way! Why don’t you and Liz be the first couple to step up and apply for the job. And don’t forget the cameras – that is one reality show I wouldn’t want to miss.

In the past 40 years, over 600,000 people have applied to be astronauts, so I’m sure there will be plenty of couples who will volunteer. And yes, some lucky couple will get the opportunity to pass within 100 miles of the surface of Mars – but I know for sure that it won’t be me and Joe!


The Clock is Ticking

Following its launch on April 24, 1990, the Hubblehubble Space Telescope (HST) got off to a shaky start. But after the 1993 repair mission and four more house calls by Space Shuttle astronauts, the Hubble went on to observe more than 30,000 celestial targets and amass more than half a million pictures of our universe.

The Hubble was designed to be deployed, captured, and serviced by Space Shuttles, and now that the Shuttle program has ended, it’s just a matter of time before the Hubble goes dark. That time is sooner than we realize.

The HST is only expected to remain operational until some time next year, with scientists squeezing out every last possible photograph.

In the meantime, NASA is working on the Hubble’s replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch in 2018. Technology has moved forward since the launch pillars-of-creationof the Hubble in 1990, and the new $5 billion telescope will carry technology that is much more sophisticated. Slated to launch in 2014, JWST will orbit much higher than the Hubble (1 million miles from the Earth’s surface verses 347 miles) and will use infrared technology to peer much deeper into our universe.

The original plan was to recapture the dying Hubble with a Space Shuttle and house it in the Smithsonian as a national treasure. However, without the Shuttle program, there is no way to bring it safely back to Earth.

Hubble could remain in a decaying orbit until sometime between 2019 and 2032 but it weighs 24,500 pounds (as much as two full-grown elephants) and is as long as a large school bus. If it were to decay and then descend on its own, parts of the Hubble’s main mirror and support structure will most likely survive. Guess we can’t have that big mirror landing in downtown Chicago during rush hour. Carina Nebula

The last visit to the Hubble by mankind will be by a robotic spacecraft that will attach itself to the telescope and guide it safely back to Earth in a fiery reentry. Until then, let’s enjoy it while we can, and keep our fingers crossed that the Energizer Bunny keeps it going and going and going…


What’s up?

I got an email from a friend the other day. It contained a link to a NASA website where I could register to receive emails or text-messages every time the International Space Station passes over my house.

It reminded me that most non-amateurs aren’t aware of the rich resources that us amateurs have at our disposal. We’re out there on the Internet looking for spacey news and websites and find interesting links everyday. We then pass the good ones on to others at meetings or during presentations.

Amy and I originally intended to include a Links & Resources page on this blog site, and I guess it’s time that we actually add one. Although I’ve only primed it with a few links, we’ll be adding to it over the next few weeks and will even blog about sites that we find especially useful or interesting.

I’ve been using the Heavens-Above website for many years to find dates and times of satellite flyovers. In fact, for a while there Amy and I even used it to track the $100,000 tool bag that was dropped by astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper during her spacewalk outside the ISS in 2008.

Our Links & Resources page will only be as good as its content, so we’d really appreciate it if you’d send us your favorite sites so we can add them to the links page and share them with everyone.


Sputnik Fest 2012

This past Saturday was no ordinary Saturday. I didn’t go camping or fishing, or cut the grass, or go to the mall. No, Amy and I decided to celebrate an event that landed Manitowoc, WI, right in the middle of the Space Race in 1962.

We’re not sure if it’s the weather or the water, but people in Wisconsin are always looking for an excuse to get out and enjoy the decent weather while it lasts. When we heard about last Saturday’s Sputnik Fest 2012, we decided it was just one of those celebrations that the AstroBabes couldn’t miss.

It turns out that on September 6, 1962, a 20-pound chunk of the disintegrating Sputnik IV landed right in the middle of the intersection of Eighth and Park streets in Manitowoc, WI. For the past five years, the city has hosted a Sputnik Festival at that intersection, a festival which has twice been recognized by Reader’s Digest as one of the Top Five Funkiest Festivals in the U.S.

We watched the Ms. Space Debris Pageant to see who would reign over all that is Sputnik for the upcoming year. We saw otherwise perfectly normal people decorate themselves in aluminum foil. We marveled at the winners of the Cosmic Cake Contest and petted a few alien pets. There were lots of vendors, good food, and, of course, beer. And for the first time in our lives, Amy and I ate a barbeque chicken sandwich topped with coleslaw.

When it was all over, we were not exactly sure what the Star Wars characters or the aluminum foil hats or Star Trek collector plates had to do with Sputnik IV, the Cold War, or the race to put a man on the moon – but one thing for sure, it was definitely fun. We’ve posted some of our favorite pictures under Lynn & Amy Adventures – enjoy!


Built to Last

Today is the 35th anniversary of the launching of Voyager 1, which is on the verge of becoming the first man-made object to leave our solar system. Its twin, Voyager 2, also celebrated its anniversary two weeks ago.

Volcanic eruption on Io.

Their original missions were to tour Jupiter and Saturn. Both gathered information and sent back startling photos of erupting volcanoes on Io, signs of methane rain on Titan, and the possibility of an ocean below the surface of Europa.

Following their Jupiter/Saturn missions, Voyager 1 used Saturn as a gravitational slingshot and launched itself towards the edge of our solar system. It is currently 11 billion miles from our sun, while Voyager 2 continued on to Uranus and Neptune and is now around 9 billion miles from our sun.

Back in 1977, no one had any idea how long the spacecrafts would continue to transmit a signal. Both are still utilizing 1977 technology, and has only 68 kilobytes of computer memory and an eight-track tape recorder at its disposal. By comparison, the smallest iPod (an 8-gigabyte Nano) is 100,000 times more powerful.

Although neither spacecraft still beams photographs back to Earth, a handful of engineers still tend to them from a satellite campus near the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Twenty part-time scientists also analyze the data that streams back (a 17-hour trip for the radio signal from Voyager 1, and a 13 hour trip for Voyager 2).

Each spacecraft contains five working instruments that study magnetic fields, cosmic rays, and solar wind particles. Each also carries multi-lingual greetings, pictures and music on a disc – Greetings From Earth, just in case some distant neighbor stumbles across it.

Each spacecraft has enough fuel to last until about 2020, at which point Voyager 1 will have escaped our galaxy and given us a glimpse of what lies between us and our neighbors.



The mere mention of an upcoming celestial event usually draws minimal attention from my family.  Their participation is usually confined to me excitedly recounting the details of an eclipse or a meteor shower, while they half listen to me.  So on the day of the landing of the latest Mars rover, Curiosity, I was pretty sure I would be the only one glued to the computer at 12:30am.

I set my alarm in case I fell asleep, crawled in bed and turned on the TV. I was passing the time going back and forth from the summer Olympics and the NASA coverage online.  I reviewed the video describing the EDL (entry, descent and landing), otherwise known as the ‘7 minutes of terror’. It’s during this time that we’re all on equal footing. All of us, mission control scientists and scientist wannabe’s (like me!) are all equally helpless as to the outcome of the descent.

I decided to use my Kindle because it would be just me watching.The Kindle screen is small, about 5″ x 7″, but it’s big enough for me to watch with.  At 12:20am, the house was quiet; my husband was tucked in bed next to me, sound asleep. I turned off the lights and was now just sitting in the glow of the Kindle.  Suddenly my phone chirped. Who in the world is texting me at this hour? It was my daughter, texting me from her bedroom. “7 minutes of terror starts right now. Live cam online.” Hmm, they do listen sometimes! “I’m watching” I replied.

The door to my room opened and in walked my daughter all bundled up in a blanket. She shuffled over to my side of the bed and I slid over making room for her to sit. “Here”, I said, “take this” as I gave her one of my ear buds.  There we sat ear to ear, tethered to the Kindle, getting caught up in the excitement! They would announce each step in the EDL and I’d quickly explain what was happening.  (Thank goodness I watched that video!) Finally – Curiosity was on the surface of Mars! She laughed and I let out a quiet ‘yeah!’ We watched mission control erupt in celebration! They laughed, cried, high fived and hugged each other. It was such a proud moment for them and for the entire country!

We watched together until the first images from Mars came through. Then as quickly as she shuffled in, she shuffled out and back to her room.  While the Astro Babe in me was amazed at the success of the Curiosity landing, the mom in me was cherishing the moment spent huddled under the blanket with her daughter, watching history unfold.


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