A Flare for UFOs?

September, 2009 by Ray Bendici
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The other night I was at the Drinking Skeptically meeting when one of the attendees said, "Hey, anyone know what an Iridium flare is?" Thanks to my interview of MUFON's Mark D'Antonio, I did!
Courtesy of NASA

Courtesy of NASA

For the uninitiated, an Iridium flare is caused when sunlight is reflected off the antennas or solar panels of an Iridium communications satellite passing overhead. Considering the size of the satellites and the distances involved, they can be dramatically bright, so much so that they can even cast shadows on the ground in some instances. Not surprisingly, they are often mistaken for UFOs. The good news is that because they are satellites, it means that they have clearly established and documented orbits, and with a little work, you can determine when and where in the night sky they will occur. If you're not quite as mathematically gifted (or just lazy like me), the site Heavens-Above provides detailed information on when and where you can see flares, as well as the information for spotting the International Space Station, the space shuttle (when in flight), other satellites, comets, constellations and other heavenly bodies. Getting back to the other night at the Skeptically Drinking Meetup -- which featured astronomer Michael Faison, director of Yale's Leitner Family Observatory & Planetarium (complete astronomy geek out!!) -- the question of Iridium flares came up because there was one getting ready to pass overhead (in Bridgeport). So of course, I went along with the other seven or eight interested people out to the parking lot to see it. The funny part is that there was a streetlight right near where the flare was to occur, so you have to picture a group of people standing together in the lot, all holding our hands up to block the light, looking like some bizarre parking lot Nazi rally. Yeah, willing to look silly for science, right? Despite the streetlight, we were able to see the flare -- it was pretty cool. At first, the satellite looked like a small star or super-high plane moving across the sky, then it got dramatically brighter for a few seconds before returning to its original state. Not the most eye-catching flare, but still impressive nonetheless. And if I didn't know what it was, I would've definitely been left scratching my head when it was over.

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