So long, Iridium flares

And hello, Iridium NEXT. The final launch of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites is targeted for January 8, 2019, at 7:48 a.m. PST. Meanwhile, the beloved glints of Iridium flares are disappearing from Earth’s night skies.

Image via IridiumNEXT.com.

UPDATE JANUARY 8, 2018: The launch of the final Iridium NEXT launch has been delayed. We’ll try to keep you updated, or try Matt Desch (@IridiumBoss) on Twitter.

ORIGINAL POST BEGINS HERE:
People often ask us about flashes in the night sky, and – over the past 20 years – many of those flashes turned out to be flares from communications satellites put into orbit by the Iridium SSC company. Beginning in 1997, the company launched into orbit around Earth some 66 telecommunications satellites, which were know to flare briefly in the night sky as their solar panels caught the sun’s rays. You’ll see some of the brief glints of Iridium flares in photos captured by the EarthSky community, on the bottom of this page. However, as we go forward – although there are still a few of the original 66 satellites up there – Iridium flares are destined to become a thing of the past. The original 66 satellites have been phased out, and a second generation of satellites – called Iridium NEXT – is nearly entirely in place. The Iridium NEXT satellites are no doubt superior in many ways, but, sadly for amateur astronomers, they don’t produce the beloved flares.

At this writing – January 7, 2019 – Iridium Communications has now successfully launched 65 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit with SpaceX from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The final Iridium NEXT launch is targeted for January 8, 2019, at 7:48 a.m. PST. Once complete, there will be a total of 75 new satellites deployed – 66 in the operational constellation and nine in-orbit spares.

Missing them already? Here’s what iridium flares look like:

A few of the original, sometimes-glinting Iridium satellites are still in low Earth orbit. They have three reflective panels that occasionally catch the sun and produce a visible flare lasting between five and 20 seconds.

The flares can be bright! They’ve been reported to be as bright as magnitude -8, which is brighter than Venus. Over the years, they became the target of many astrophotographers and astronomers. Some “collected” the flares, like birds or butterflies, and you can still find tracking information for the few remaining flaring satellites on websites such as HeavensAbove.com.

One of the original Iridium satellites, donated to the Air and Space Museum. Photograph by Flickr user ideonexus via Wikimedia Commons.

You can still see flashes in the night sky. Other objects that produce flashes in the sky include, for example, tumbling rocket bodies. After launching a satellite, some rocket bodies may continue to orbit Earth for weeks, months or even years. As they are tumbling, they may be visible as a dim moving “star” that might produce bright flashes as the object reflects more sunlight.

And, of course, there are the more ordinary – but often very spectacular – flashes of shooting stars, or meteors. Here is EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2019.

Plus, some of the original 66 Iridium satellites are still up there (although, one by one, they’re being allowed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere).

Iridium Communications has set up a web page and hashtag called #flarewell to mark the end of Iridium flares.

Another place to follow them is @CatchtheIridium on Twitter.

Over the years, the EarthSky community has caught many beautiful Iridium flares. Our thanks to all of you who contributed photos, a few of which are shown below.

A nightscape, with Milky Way and an iridium flare

Mike Taylor Photography called this image Nature & Man: Iridium Flare, Milky Way, Clouds and Light Pollution. Thanks, Mike!

Iridium flare caught on December 9, 2012, by Simon Waldram, in Spain. Thank you, Simon!

A church steeple in the foreground, with an iridium flare in the sky behind it.

Iridium flare from Gainesville, Florida, predicted magnitude -8. Foreground shows historic Kanapaha Presbyterian Church in Gainesville. Photo taken 45 minutes after sunset by Howard Cohen. Canon DSLR EOS 5D II, tripod mounted with Canon 20-35 mm, f/3.5-4.5 lens at 20 mm. Exposure f/4.5, ISO 250, from 18:52:10 to 18:52:40 EST. Thank you, Howard!

View larger. | On February 12, 2013, Luis Argerich in Buenos Aires caught Comet PANSTARRS, the fan-shaped object on the left, in the same photo as an iridium flare. Awesome capture, Luis. Thank you!

Iridium flare caught by brothers Lee and Joe Hartley on November 8, 2014, over Watson Mill State Park, Georgia. Thanks, Lee and Joe!

Vince Babkirk captured this flare from an Iridium satellite on July 22, 2016. He wrote: “There were lots of fast-moving clouds tonight but the Iridium 59 satellite was supposed to appear at a magnitude -8.3. The only question was if the clouds were going to cooperate. They parted just in time for me to capture the flare.” Thank you, Vince!

Comet Lovejoy and a passing meteor, or Iridium flare, on January 10, 2015, as captured by Dale Forrest in Boone, North Carolina. Thanks, Dale!

Blue auroras over a relay station/communication equipment at the South Pole. And top right is an Iridium flare. Photo taken May 28, 2017, by Hunter Davis. Thank you, Hunter!

Maureen Allen in Yankeetown, Florida caught Venus (brightest), Mars (above left) and the zodical light (big hazy light pyramid!) on Sunday evening, February 26, 2017. The little cluster at the top of the pyramid is the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. Maureen wrote: “If you look closely, there are also two small iridium flares just below Mars.”

Bottom line: The beloved glints of Iridium flares are nearly gone from Earth’s night skies, as the original set of 66 Iridium communications satellites have been decommissioned and are being allowed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. The final launch of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites is targeted for January 8, 2019. The Iridium NEXT satellites do not flare.

Visit #flarewell, the iridium flare tribute site

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