Flash! Iridium Flares Captured in Real Time by Thierry Legault

There are so many fun sights to see in the sky that are pure astronomical magic. And then there are the spectacular human-created sights. One of those sights is watching satellites from the Iridium constellation that — because of their odd shape — produce spectacular flares that can be brighter than the planet Venus.

Because most of these satellites are still under control by their parent company, their flare timings are easy to predict. And now astrophotographer Thierry Legualt has caught them in action on a video.

“Usually they are photographed in long exposures,” Legault told Universe Today via email. “But last summer I filmed three of them in the Big Dipper and Orion, and they were so bright a pond reflected the flare. In video you can see the real speed of the event.”

The third sequence on the video might look a little odd, but Legault said he rotated the camera 90°. “I found it funny like that,” he said. “Tilt your head or your screen!?”

According to a July Sky & Telescope article, the constellation includes 66 satellites — down from the planned 77 — and is named after element 77 in the periodic table. Normally these machines drift along like a faint star, but when the sunlight catches the side just right, out comes the flash.

“A really bright one can take your breath away,” wrote Bob King, who is also a writer here on Universe Today. “I’ve been lucky enough to witness a few –8 passes and can only describe the experience as alarming. It’s not natural to see a starlike object glow so brilliantly. If you’ve ever wondered what a nearby supernova might look like, treat yourself to one of these.”

One way to track these flares down is to use the Heavens-Above website.

See more of Thierry’s work at his website, and read our review of his wonderful observing and photography primer, “Astrophotography” here.

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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