For quite a while I have been captivated by the sight of the International Space Station (ISS) whenever it is visible in the evening or morning sky. It is a big object, about 100 meters across and highly reflective. In the sky it looks as bright as Venus but it moves as swiftly as an airplane and in a very beautiful arc across the sky. Last week I was introduced to another near-earth satellite, actually a group of satellites known as Iridium Satellites. These are a collection of 66 communications satellites that circle the globe from a higher orbit than the ISS, but nonetheless light up quite brightly when viewed from just the right orientation. When sunlight glints off the antenna panels they create a very bright beam of light known as an "Iridium Flare."
I had never taken the time to look for one of these flares so I consulted a website known as Heavens Above (also permanently linked from this blog). There you can enter your location on a Google map and get a listing of the next 7 days of Iridium Flares. I did this and yesterday saw an amazingly bright flare from my front steps.
Iridium Flares are very localized events - that is, when a flare is visible at a particular moment and in a particular location, you won't see it nearly as bright (or at all) 10 or 20 miles away. So if you want to see one, take the time to carefully select your location on the map and then jot down the exact times and locations of the next few flares in your neighborhood. They are indeed impressive and you will be glad you took a moment to see one. They are astronomy - from my point of view - because you are looking carefully at the sky and seeing something that is outside of our own atmosphere.