Everyone likes cool things. That is one reason so many people are willing to pay the big bucks for iPhones and iPads — they are way cool. Cooler than Androids, etc. We also like to do cool things, even if they have no obvious purpose. Of course, something that is cool is even cooler if it has a tinge of geekness about it. Today I want to share a truly cool thing that I bumped into totally by accident this week, and it qualifies as a geeky thing. By some loose logic, I lump it with decision making since you have to decide if you think this is really cool, or if you think that I am out to lunch.
To set the stage, suppose you are outside at night with some friends, or a potential special friend that you want to impress in a private way. You start the event by saying you have a hunch about a nova that might light up the night sky right there (pointing). Novae are rare and very special, so seeing one would be the treat of a lifetime. As you point, a sudden light appears right there in the sky, and it is more than 10 times as bright as Venus at its brightest! The light lasts for a few seconds while your audience gasps and then disappears. “Not much so far as novae go…” you shrug, assume a nonchalant air, and immediately change the subject. With luck, they will not notice a slight motion of the light, which would immediately show that it was not a star, but a satellite.
You can think of other scenarios based on your mysterious ability to predict sudden very bright lights at a particular place and time. For instance, you could claim an alien invasion has started with ships warping out of hyperspace; oops! here comes one right now! If you are into fantasy role-playing, you could pretend to be able to force stars to be brighter thanks to your accumulated powers from slaying whatever.
So how does this happen? Where do the mysterious lights come from? We have all seen artificial satellites streaking across the sky at night. Some are medium bright, and most rather dim. But there is a special covey of satellites used for telephone communication. These have an almost unique characteristic of having a large reflective surface which, at predictable times in their orbits, will reflect the sun across a defined path on the Earth. When such a path happens to pass over you, the previously unnoticed satellite will suddenly flash bright until it passes farther along its orbit. The effect can be quite startling. For a few seconds, the Iridium flare can be the brightest thing in the sky.
So it would be neat if you knew when and where to look for the flash in the sky. The site I came upon, which does just that for you, is Heavens Above. But before you go there, you need to know your exact location. Either use a GPS, or go to one the mapping sites and input the address where you will be when you want to see an Iridium flare. Armed with latitude and longitude (and elevation, if possible), go to the Heavens Above site and near the top directly under the first (Configuration) heading is a place to enter your location. If you are unable or unwilling to find your location by GPS, never fear. The first two options are to find it from a map or by entering a location name. Either method might work well enough, but will not be as accurate as the “edit manually” option where you can enter your exact location in 3-D.
Regardless of which method you opt for, once you have entered your location, scan down under the next heading (Satellites) and you will see the links to the Iridium flares. From there, it is simple navigation to find a predicted flare that you might be able to see. Of course, the Iridium people do not care about you trying to make a cool prediction for lights in the skies, so do not be surprised if you must wait a bit. Patience and luck will work wonders.
While you are at the Heavens Above site, you can also find the location of the International Space Station. If it passes overhead near you, it will be obvious.
Of course, if you are a teacher or parent and want to impress on young minds the power of science and technology, you can start with a fantasy story to magically make a flare appear, and then segue into a discussion of the incredible precision of orbital mechanics to allow such a prediction and the technology that makes launching a covey of such spacecraft for the purpose of making phone calls from anyplace in the world a financial reality. Then, depending on how glassy the kids’ eyes are getting, loop back to the wonders of the Internet, which distributes this information for anyone to look at.
Put it in perspective for the children. What do the isolated natives in some Brazilian rain forest encampment think of these new stars when they flick off and on? What do they make of the normal satellites that their ancestors never saw? A modern person not connected to the Internet would still have no difficulty identifying the strange lights as artificial satellites. What strange religious interpretations are put on these flares by indigenous people? It has not been that long ago that Europeans were driven to madness and fear by the approach of a comet, so we should think twice before feeling superior.
In the meanwhile, it is just cool to predict a bright flare at a specific place at an exact time.
The Heavens Above site can be found here.