More Weird Night Sky Happenings – Help Me!

Ok, so. As some people who regularly visit this blog know, I’m a big astronomy whore. I can’t get enough of that stuff. Anything that has to do with the night sky, and/or deep space, fascinates me to no end. I’ve been like this all my life — right from the time that I was a very, very young boy.

One pastime that I enjoy from time to time is satellite hunting. Don’t ask me why I like it, but I do. On some clear nights, when the weather is nice, I’ll go out to dark areas out in the country and watch for satellite passes overhead. I’ll note the exact time and the position of the sky that the pass occurred. Then, when I get home, I’ll hit the JPL website and look-up the info. on their system in order to find out exactly what it was that I saw. I’ll then spend some time trying to learn everything that I can about that satellite — what its purpose is, when it was launched, who launched it, etc. I do this because I’m also a big knowledge whore with a herculean appetite for facts and information — especially of the type that I will probably never have a need for at any time in my life. Don’t ask me why.

So, for years I’ve been trying to hunt down an iridium satellite so that I might witness an iridium flare. I’ll go out anywhere from one to four or five times each summer armed with pass prediction data from JPL. I’ve been doing this for probably close to ten years — I’ve yet to see an iridium flare. They’re a little tricky to spot. You have to be standing in pretty much exactly the right place at exactly the right time, and it’s not easy. The right place is about a 20km or so diameter (quite minuscule when you’re dealing in earth & sky co-ords) and the right time is usually about a six or eight second window. If you don’t know what an iridium flare is (and I gather most people don’t) an Iridium flare is a bright flash of light made by an iridium satellite and projected down onto Earth. And, an iridium satellite is just a fairly ordinary and fairly small communications satellite. But, they each sport three highly reflective antennas called MMAs, or “Main Mission Antennas.” If you happen to be standing in just the right spot down here on planet Earth when one passes over, the antenna will reflect a beam of sunlight down on to you. This creates a very bright flare in the night sky (iridium flares can be up to 30 times brighter than Venus!) I’ve always wanted to see one. I’ve gone out looking many times but they’ve always eluded me. I hunt other satellites all the time and am almost always successful… but I’ve never seen an iridium satellite flare.

So, down to the crux of the story: I usually work throughout the wee small hours of the morning — writing, painting, editing images, doing web-work, etc. If it’s nice outside, when I need a break, I’ll often step out onto my back porch for a smoke — just to grab a little serenity, listen to crickets, and silence the brain-chatter that takes hold when you’ve spent a couple of hours embroiled in intense artistic pursuit. These back-porch smoke breaks usually take place at around 3:00 AM or so.

About a week ago, here’s what happened: I stepped out on my porch, put a cigarette in my mouth, lit it, and looked up into the sky directly at what must have been an iridium flare. I couldn’t believe it! I JUST stepped out onto the porch and looked up (like, Man, I mean I JUST stepped out and looked up), and there it was. For a second I caught the movement of a low magnitude (very dim) satellite, and about a second later, it flared up to a size and brightness that made it appear as if Jupiter was moving quickly across the sky. I was stunned! I’ve been making efforts to try and see one of these things for ages, and now it just happens! What perfect timing! The flare lasted for no more than about 2 to 4 seconds, and then it faded back to a dim, normal looking satellite for a few seconds, then faded to blackness.

At the time, I was giddy with the thought of my luck. But, since it never entered my mind that this could be anything other than an iridium flare, I didn’t bother to come inside and look it up on JPL’s site. Why should I? I knew what it was. Sure, I thought perhaps it could have been the ISS (International Space Station) But, I’ve seen the ISS plenty of times. It looks very similar to what I saw, but I’ve never seen the ISS flare and then fade so quickly. Every time I’ve seen the ISS, it has flared  from nothing to maximum brightness instantly and then stayed at that magnitude for a good ten seconds or so before fading to black. It must have been an iridium flare! So, no real need to look it up.

But, STOP THE PRESSES! Tonight… EXACTLY THE SAME THING happened to me! One week later, and I step out into my back yard, at quarter after three in the morning, put a cigarette in my mouth, look up into the sky, and I see EXACTLY THE SAME DAMNED THING!!! Well… this time there were three small differences: (1) It occurred in a different part of the sky. (2) It appeared to be traveling in a different direction. And (3) There was another satellite that appeared to be traveling along side the one that flared!?!?!?! What the hell??? (The companion satellite didn’t flare — although, it did fade to black at pretty much exactly the same time as the flare satellite did. I suppose, but am not sure, that this would indicate that the two were at roughly the same altitude, as they seemed to pass into earth shadow at almost exactly, if not exactly, the same time.) If you hold your hand out at arm’s length, with your hand out flat against the sky, the non-flaring satellite appeared about three to four finger widths closer to the horizon than the flaring satellite. The non-flaring satellite appeared to be moving almost parallel to the flaring satellite, but not quite. It seemed to be headed just slightly toward the flaring satellite. In all my years of observing satellites, I don’t think I’ve ever seen two in the sky at any one time, at any distance from each other. Weird!

So, flabbergasted, I made my way inside immediately and hit JPL’s satellite tracking page. I entered my latitude and longitude and the date and time: July 26th, 2006 @ 3:15 A.M. And… NOTHING! JPL has NOTHING making passes over my house anywhere near that time. What in the hell did I see??? Some ‘off-the-book’ military satellite, or something? I dunno, Man… freakin’ WEIRD!

If you have any ideas of what is was I might have been witness to, please, let me know!!!

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