The end for Iridium flares?

A new fleet of satellites is being phased into Earth orbit that could spell the end for the predictable bright flashes in the night sky known as Iridium flares.

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Iridium flare spotters and photographers are in for some bad news, as the bright flashes in the night sky could soon become a thing of the past.

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Iridium flares occur as a result of sunlight reflecting off Iridium satellites orbiting Earth.

There are currently 66 active satellites owned by communications company Iridium, which provide coverage for mobile phones and other forms of communication across the planet.

The shape of the satellites’ antennas and their silver reflective surface concentrates sunlight onto a small area, resulting in momentary bright flashes that can be seen in the sky from Earth. Many of these can reach up to -8 magnitude and can often be seen even during daylight.

Because the satellites are human-made, their exact position over the Earth can be predicted.

As a result, many photographers and stargazers are able to anticipate when these flashes will occur and plan observing and photography sessions accordingly.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 launches from California in the US to deliver the first of the new satellites that could see Iridium flares come to an end. Credit: SpaceX
The SpaceX Falcon 9 launches from California in the US to deliver the first of the new satellites that could see Iridium flares come to an end.
Credit: SpaceX

However, hunting for Iridium flares could soon come to an end. On 14 January 2017, the rocket and spacecraft manufacturer SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 spacecraft from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, US, to deliver 10 satellites to low-Earth orbit for the Iridium company.

These are the first of 70 new satellites that SpaceX will be launching for Iridium NEXT, the company’s new constellation of satellites.

Further launches are planned over the coming year to enable all 70 new satellites to be phased in by early 2018, replacing the current network.

By this time, it is expected that bright Iridium flares in the night sky will be no more.

So while the updated satellite system promises improved communications across the globe, Iridium flare hunters may soon find their hobby is no more.

However, there is still time to spot some flares before the project is completed.

Visit www.satflare.com to track satellites online and find out when one will be passing over your location.

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If you manage to spot and photograph an Iridium flare, share with us via our Hotshots gallery or social media on Twitter and Facebook.