The Iridium Flare Era is About to End

iridium flare
An Iridium flare slices through the twilight sky. Image credit and copyright: Alan Dyer.

You never forget your first one. I remember reading about a curious new set of flaring satellites, known as Iridiums. This was waaaaay back in the late 1990s, when we still occasionally read things in something called magazines, which involved pressing ink into plant-flesh to convey information.

Fast-forward to 2019, and the age of the predictable Iridium flare may be coming to an end. Already, scrolling through Heavens-Above reveals very few Iridium flares for the coming months, and these familiar nighttime flashes may become a thing of the past come the end of the decade in 2020.

Continue reading “The Iridium Flare Era is About to End”

SpaceX to Launch 64 Satellites, Including Orbital Reflector

orbital Reflector
An artist’s impression of Orbital Reflector unfurled in space. Credit: Orbital Reflector/Nevada Museum of Art

UPDATE – SpaceX has now set a firm date and time for the Spaceflight SSO-A launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base for Monday, December 3nd at 18:31 Universal Time (UT).

A unique smallsat mission promises to be the latest satellite “brighter than a Full Moon!” in the night sky… or not.

The Mission: We’re talking about Orbital Reflector, conceived by Trevor Paglen and fielded by the Nevada Museum of Arts. Dubbed as the “first art exhibit in space,” the $1.3 million dollar project seeks to put a smallsat payload with a deployable reflector in low Earth orbit. Continue reading “SpaceX to Launch 64 Satellites, Including Orbital Reflector”

Poor Weather Pushes SpaceX Return Debut with Revolutionary Iridium Relay Sats to Jan. 14

Mission patch for Iridium-1 mission showing launch of the first 10 Iridium NEXT voice and data relay satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, for Iridium Communications, and planned landing of the first stage on a droneship in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

Mission patch for Iridium-1 mission showing launch of the first 10 Iridium NEXT voice and data relay satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, for Iridium Communications, and planned landing of the first stage on a droneship in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

In the face of unrelenting days of very poor weather and a range conflict with another very critical rocket launch, SpaceX is pushing back the return debut of their private Falcon 9 rocket carrying a revolutionary fleet of voice and data commercial communications relay satellites for Iridium to no earlier than next weekend, Jan 14.

Earlier indications of a nearly weeks long launch delay from Monday, Jan. 9 to next Saturday morning, Jan. 14, were officially confirmed today, Jan. 8, by SpaceX and their Iridium Communications customer.

“Launch moving due to high winds and rains at Vandenberg,” SpaceX announced today, Jan. 8.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation Iridium NEXT communications satellites had been slated for 10:22 am PST (1:22 pm EST), Jan. 9, 2017 from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The advanced next satellites will start the process of replacing an aging Iridium fleet in orbit for nearly two decades.

And it was less than 48 hours ago on Friday, Jan. 6, that the FAA finally granted SpaceX a license to launch the ‘Return to Flight’ Falcon 9 mission – as I confirmed with the FAA here.

“The FAA accepted the investigation report on the AMOS-6 mishap and has closed the investigation,” FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed to Universe Today.

“SpaceX applied for a license to launch the Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The FAA has granted a license for that purpose.”

The SpaceX investigation report into the total loss of the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload has not been released at this time. The FAA has oversight responsibility to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation and ensure the protection of public safety.

The private rocket – developed by CEO Elon Musk and his company – has been grounded for four months since a catastrophic launch pad explosion last September suddenly destroyed another Falcon 9 and its $200 million Israeli owned satellite during a prelaunch fueling test on the Florida Space Coast.

The Sept. 1, 2016 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time. Both occurred inside the second stage and called into question the rockets reliability.

The prognosis of a week of bad California weather had been known for some time and finally prompted an official announcement just 24 hours before the hoped for launch.

“With high winds and rain in the forecast at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the first launch of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites is now planned for January 14th at 9:54:34 am PST with a back-up date of January 15th,” Iridium officials elaborated in a statement.

The mission, known as Iridium 1, has an instantaneous launch opportunity at 9:54:34 a.m. PST (12:54:34 p.m. EST).

Next Sunday, Jan. 15 is available as a back-up launch opportunity in case of a delay for any reason including technical and weather related issues.

Furthermore, humorous pleas by Iridium CEO Matt Desch for divine intervention went unheeded !

“Can now confirm: new launch date Jan 14 at 9:54am pst. Bad weather the cause. Anti-rain dances didn’t work – oh well. Cal needs rain?” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch when he threw in the towel this morning by tweet.

Things change fast and furious in the rocket business, and flexibility is the name of the game if you want to survive the frequently changing landscape.

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

A contributing factor to the delay is a range conflict with an upcoming Atlas rocket launch for the U.S National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) at Vandenberg AFB.

“Other range conflicts this week results in next available launch date being Jan 14,” SpaceX confirmed.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V is scheduled to launch the super secret NROL-79 spy satellite for the NRO on Jan. 26.

Prior to the launch, ULA must conduct a wet dress rehearsal (WDR) of the Atlas V by fueling it with propellants to confirm its readiness to launch.

The clandestine NROL-79 intelligence-gathering payload is critical to US national defense. Surly it was manufactured over a time span of several years at an unknown classified cost probably amounting to billions of dollars.

For the Iridium – 1 mission the 229-foot (70-meter) Falcon 9 will carry a fleet of ten Iridium NEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites to orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca, for Iridium Communications.

Video Caption: Iridium NEXT: Changing the Paradigm In Space Communications. Credit: Iridium/SpaceX

Iridium 1 is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation which will eventually consist of 81 advanced satellites.

The FAA license approved on Jan. 6 covers all seven launches.

“Space Explorations Technologies is authorized to conduct seven launches of Falcon 9 version 1.2 vehicles from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base with each flight transporting ten Iridium NEXT payloads to low Earth orbit.

The license also allows SpaceX to land the first stage on a droneship at sea in the Pacific Ocean.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 arrives at mouth of Port Canaveral, FL on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/

So besides the launch, SpaceX plans to continue its secondary objective of recovering the Falcon 9 first stage via a propulsive soft landing – as done several times previously and witnessed by this author.

The Iridium-1 mission patch featured herein highlights both the launch and landing objectives.

The goal is to eventually recycle and reuse the first stage – and thereby dramatically slash launch costs per Musk’s vision.

This Falcon 9 has been outfitted with four landing lags and grid fins for a controlled landing on a tiny barge prepositioned in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the west coast of California.

Desch says that all seven of his Falcon’s will be new – not reused.

“All our seven F9s are new,” Desch tweeted.

On Jan. 2, SpaceX issued a statement ascribing the Sept. 1, 2016 AMOS-6 launch pad anomaly as being traced to a failure wherein one of three high pressure helium storage tanks located inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank of the Falcon 9 rocket suddenly burst. Cold helium is used to pressurize the propellant tanks. They provided some but not many technical details.

The failure apparently originated at a point where the helium tank “buckles” and accumulates oxygen – “leading to ignition” of the highly flammable superchilled oxygen propellant in the second stage when it came into contact with carbon fibers covering the helium tanks – also known as composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs).

“Friction ignition” between the carbon fibers acting as a friction source and super chilled oxygen led to the calamitous explosion, SpaceX concluded was the most likely cause of the disaster.

Watch this space for continuing updates as SpaceX rolls the rocket out from the processing hangar and we watch the saga of the foggy weather forecast with great anticipation !

SpaceX rocket processing hangar at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, fogged by common fog. Credit Julian Leek

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Iridium NEXT Set to Begin Deployment This Year

An artist's conception of an Iridium-NEXT satellite in low Earth orbit. Credit: Iridium Communications Inc.

The skies, they are uh changin’…  I remember reading in Astronomy magazine waaaay back in the late 1990s (in those days, news was disseminated in actual paper magazines) about a hot new constellation of satellites that were said to flare in a predictable fashion.

This is the Iridium satellite constellation, a series of 66 active satellites and six in-orbit and nine ground spares. The ‘Iridium’ name comes from the element with atomic number 77 of the same name (the original project envisioned 77 satellites in low Earth orbit), and the satellites serve users with global satellite phone coverage.

A 'double Iridium flare' capture! Image credit: Mary Spicer
A ‘double Iridium flare’ capture! Image credit: Mary Spicer

Over the years, Iridium satellite flares have become a common sight in the night sky… but that may change soon.

The next generation of Iridium communications satellites begins launching later this year through 2017.

Known as Iridium-NEXT, the first launch is set for October of this year from Dombarovsky air base Russia atop a converted ICBM Dnepr rocket. The Dnepr can carry two satellites on each launch, and SpaceX has also recently agreed to deploy 70 satellites over the span of seven missions launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California later this year.

Both the initial Iridium satellites and Iridium NEXT are operated by Iridium Communications Incorporated. The original satellites were built by Motorola and Lockheed Martin, and the prime contract for Iridium NEXT construction went to Thales Alenia Space.

There are also several fascinating issues surrounding the history of the Iridium constellation, both past and present.

Originally fielded by Motorola in the 1990s, satellite phones were to be “the next big thing” until mobile phones took over. Conceived in the late 1980s, the concept of satellite phones was practically obsolete before the first Iridium satellite got off the ground. The high cost of satellite phone services assured they could never manage to compete with the explosive growth of the mobile phone industry, and satellite phones at best only found niche applications for remote operations worldwide.  Iridium Communications declared bankruptcy in 1999, and the $6 billion US dollar project was bought by a group of private investors for only $35 million dollars.

Airmen using an Iridium satellite phone in Antarctica. Image credit: Robert Tingle/USAF
Airmen using an Iridium satellite phone in Antarctica. Image credit: Robert Tingle/USAF

The original Iridium constellation employed a unique system of Inter-Satellite Links, enabling them to directly route signals from satellite to satellite. Iridium NEXT will use an innovative L-band phased array antenna, allowing for larger bandwidth and faster data transmission. The Iridium NEXT constellation is planned to eventually contain 81 satellites including spares, and the system will be much more robust and reliable.

The Iridium NEXT constellation will also face some stiff competition, as Google, SpaceX and OneWeb are also looking to get into the business of satellite Internet and communications. This will also place hundreds of new satellites—not to mention the growing flock of CubeSats—into an already very crowded region of low Earth orbit. The Iridium 33 satellite collision with the defunct Kosmos 2251 satellite in 2009 highlighted the ongoing issues surrounding space debris.

The company applied for a plan to deorbit the original Iridium constellation starting in 2017 as soon as the new Iridium NEXT satellites are in place.

Now, I know what the question of the hour is, as it’s one that we get frequently from other satellite spotters and lovers of artificial things that flash in the sky:

Will the Iridium NEXT satellites flare in manner similar to their predecessors?

Unfortunately, the prospects aren’t good. Missing on Iridium NEXT are the three large refrigerator-sized antennae which are the source of those brilliant -8 magnitude flares. And sure, while these flares weren’t Iridium’s sole mission purpose, they were sure fun to watch!

An 'Iridium classic...' note the trio of reflective antenae on the lower bus. Image credit: Iridium Communications inc.
An ‘Iridium classic…’ note the trio of reflective antennae on the lower bus. Image credit: Iridium Communications inc.

David Cubbage, Associate Director of NEXT Spacecraft Development and Satellite Production recently told Universe Today:

“It was very exciting when we first discovered that the Iridium Block 1 satellite vehicles (SVs) reflected the sunlight into a concentrated “flare” that could be viewed in the night sky.  The unique design of the Block 1 SV, with three highly reflective Main Mission Antennas (MMA) deployed at an angle from the SV body, is what caused that to happen.  For the Iridium NEXT constellation, the SVs will be built under a different design with a single MMA that faces the Earth — a design that requires fewer parts that do not need to be as reflective.  As a result, it will not likely produce the spectacular flares of the Block 1 design.”

But don’t despair. Though the two decade ‘Age of the Iridium flare’ may be coming to an end, lots of other satellites, including the Hubble Space Telescope, MetOp-A and B,  and the COSMO-SkyMed series of satellites can ‘slow flare’ on occasion. We recently saw something similar during a pass of the U.S. Air Force’s super-secret ATV-4 space plane currently carrying out its OTV-4 mission, suggesting that a large reflective solar panel may be currently deployed.

An Iridium flare through the constellations Orion and Lepus. Image credit: David Dickinson
An Iridium flare passing through the constellations Orion and Lepus. Image credit: David Dickinson

And though the path to commercial viability for satellite internet and communications is a tough one, we hope it does indeed take off soon… we personally love the idea of being able to stay connected from anywhere worldwide.

Be sure to catch those Iridium flares while you can… we’ll soon be telling future generations of amateur astronomers that we remember “back when…”

-Check out the chances for the next Iridium flare coming to a sky near you on Heavens-Above.

How to Spot and Track Satellites

A 10 second exposure of a bright pass of the International Space Station. (Photo by Author).

It’s a question we get all the time.

Watch the sky closely in the dawn or dusk hours, and you’ll likely see a moving “star” or two sliding by. These are satellites, or  “artificial moons” placed in low Earth orbit. These shine via reflected sunlight as they pass hundreds of kilometres overhead.

Many folks are unaware that you can see satellites with the naked eye. I always make an effort  to watch for these during public star parties and point them out. A bright pass of the International Space Station if often as memorable as anything that can be seen through the eyepiece. But after this revelation, “the question” soon follows- “What satellite is that?”

Welcome to the wonderful and highly addictive world of satellite tracking. Ground observers have been watching the skies since Sputnik 1 and the first satellite launch in October 1957. Armies of dedicated volunteers even participated in tracking the early launches of the Space Age with Operation Moonwatch.

Depiction of the apparent motion of a typical satellite overhead with respect to the observer. (Graphic created by author).
Depiction of the apparent motion of a typical satellite overhead with respect to the observer. (Graphic created by author).

The Internet has offered a wealth of information for satellite hunters. Every time I write about “how to spot the ISS,” someone amazes me with yet another new tracker App that I hadn’t heard of. One of my favorites is still Heavens-Above. It’s strange to think that we’ve been visiting this outstanding website daily for a decade and a half now. Heavens-Above specializes in satellites, and will show you a quick listing of passes for brighter satellites once configured with your location. A nifty “quick check” for possibly resolving a mystery satellite is their link for “Daily Predictions for brighter satellites” Which will generate a list of visible passes by time.

Screenshot of a typical list of bright satellite passes from Heavens-Above.
Screenshot of a typical list of bright satellite passes from Heavens-Above filtered by brightness, time and location .

Looking at the time, direction, and brightness of a pass is crucial to satellite identification. No equipment is needed to start the hunt for satellites tonight, just a working set of eyes and information. We sometimes use a set of Canon image-stabilized 15x 45 binoculars to hunt for satellites too faint to see with the naked eye. We’ve seen the “Tool Bag” lost during an ISS EVA a few years back, as well as such “living relics” of the early Space Age as Canada’s first satellite Alloutte-1, and the Vanguards (Yes, they’re STILL up there!) using binocs.

A comparision of typical satellite orbits. (Credit
A comparison of typical satellite orbits. (Credit: Cmglee, Geo Swan graphic under a Creative Commons Attribution -Share Alike 3.0 unported license).

The trick to catching fainter satellites such as these is to “ambush” them. You’ll need to note the precise time that the selected satellite is going to pass near a bright star. Clicking on a selected satellite pass in Heavens-Above will give you a local sky chart with a time-marked path. I use a short wave portable AM radio tuned to WWV out of Fort Collins, Colorado for an accurate audible time signal. Just sit back, listen to the radio call out the time, and watch for the satellite to pass through the field of view near the target star.

Another great site for more advanced trackers is CALSky. Like Heavens-Above, CALSky will give you a customized list for satellite passes over your location. One cool extra feature on CALSky is the ability to set alerts for passes of the ISS near bright planets or transiting the Sun or Moon. These are difficult events to capture, but worth it!

The International Space Station transiting the Moon as captured by Mike Weasner from Cassiopeia Observatory in Arizona.
The International Space Station transiting the Moon as captured by Mike Weasner from Cassiopeia Observatory in Arizona.

A great deal of what’s up there is space junk in the form of discarded hardware. Many satellites are on looping elliptical orbits, only visible to the naked eye when they are near perigee. Many satellites are located out at geosynchronous or geostationary orbits 35,786 kilometres distant and are invisible to the naked eye all together. These will often show up as streaks in astrophotos. An area notorious for geosynchronous satellites exists near the direction of M42 or Orion Nebula. During certain times of year, satellites can be seen nearby, nodding slowly north to south and back again. Around the March and September equinox seasons, geostationary satellites can be eclipsed by the shadow of the Earth. This can also cause communications difficulties, as many geo-sats also lie sunward as seen from the Earth around these times of year.

Probably one of the simplest satellite trackers for casual users is Space Weather’s Satellite Flybys page. North American users simply need to enter a postal code (worldwide users can track satellites via entering “country-state-city”) and a list of passes for your location is generated.

It’s a basic truism of satellite tracking that “aircraft blink; satellites don’t”. Know, we’re going to present an exception to this rule.

Some satellites will flash rhythmically due to a tumbling motion. This can be pretty dramatic to see. What you’re seeing is an expended booster, a cylinder tumbling due to atmospheric drag end-over-end. Some satellites can flash or flare briefly due to sunlight glinting off of reflective surfaces just right. Hubble, the ISS and the late NanoSail D2 can flare if conditions are just right.

The most dramatic of these are Iridium flares. The Iridium constellation consists of 66 active satellites used for satellite phone coverage in low-Earth orbit. When one of their three refrigerator-sized  antennas catch the Sun just right, they can flare up to magnitude -8, or 40 times brighter than Venus. CALSky and Heavens-Above will also predict these events for your location.

Didn’t see a predicted satellite pass? Light pollution or bright twilight skies might be to blame. Keep in mind, passes lower to the horizon also fall prey to atmospheric extinction, as you’re looking through a thicker layer of the air than straight overhead.  Some satellites such as the ISS or the USAF’s X-37B spy space plane even periodically boost or modify their orbits, throwing online prediction platforms off for a time.

More advanced satellite trackers will want to check out Celestrak and SAT-Flare Tracker 3D.

A screenshot example of TLE's for the ISS & Tiangong-1 from Celestrak.
A screenshot example of TLE’s for the ISS & Tiangong-1 from Celestrak.

I use a free tracking platform created by Sebastian Stoff known as Orbitron. Orbitron lets you set your observing location and tailor your view for what’s currently over head. You can run simulations and even filter for “visual only” passes, another plus. I also like Orbitron’s ability to run as a stand-alone system in the field, sans Internet connection. Just remember, for it to work properly, you’ll need to periodically update the .txt file containing the Two-Line Element (TLE) sets. TLE’s are data element sets that describe the orbital elements of a satellite. Cut and paste TLEs are available from Heavens-Above and Celestrak.

Orbitron screenshot for visible satellites using 'radar' mode... there's lots up there! (Credit: Orbitron).
Orbitron screenshot for visible satellites using ‘radar’ mode… there’s lots up there! (Credit: Orbitron).

For serious users, NORAD’s Space-Track is the best site for up-to-date TLEs.  Space-Track requires a login and user agreement to access, but is available to satellite spotters and educators as a valuable resource. Space-Track also hosts a table of upcoming reentries, as does the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital & Reentry Debris Studies.

The SeeSat-L mailing list is also an excellent source of discussion among satellite trackers worldwide. Increasingly, this discussion is also moving over to Twitter, which is ideal for following swiftly evolving  action in orbit. @Twisst, created by Jaap Meijers,will even Tweet you prior to an ISS pass!

And there’s always something new or strange in the sky for the observant. Satellites such as those used in the Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS) were launched in groups, and are eerie to watch as they move in formations of 2 or 3 across the sky. These are difficult to catch, and all three of our sightings thus far of a NOSS pair have been surreptitious. And we’ve only had the camera ready to swing into action once to nab a NOSS pair;

A NOSS pair captured by the author. The multi-colored trail bisecting the path is an aircraft. Note a bit of "jitter" at the beginning of the exposure- I had to swing the camera into action quickly!
A NOSS pair captured by the author. The multi-colored trail to the left of the path is an aircraft. Note a bit of “jitter” at the beginning of the exposure- I had to swing the camera into action quickly!

Another bizarre satellite to catch in action is known as the Cloud-Aerosol LiDAR & Infrared Pathfinder Satellite for Observations, or CALIPSO. Part of the “afternoon A-Train” of sun-synchronous Earth observing satellites, you can catch the green LiDAR flashes of CALIPSO from the ground with careful planning, just as Gregg Hendry did in 2008-2009:

A CALIPSO LIDAR pass imaged by Gregg Hendry in 2008. My Hendry mentions that, "The hollow nature of the spots is likely due to some spherical aberration in the camera lens coupled with imperfect focus and is not representative of the laser beam's optical quality."
A CALIPSO LiDAR pass imaged by Gregg Hendry in 2008. My Hendry mentions that, “The hollow nature of the spots is likely due to some spherical aberration in the camera lens coupled with imperfect focus, and is not representative of the laser beam’s optical quality.” (Credit: Gregg Hendry, used with permission).

NASA even publishes a prediction table for CALIPSO lidar passes. I wonder how many UFO sightings CALIPSO has generated?

Artist's depiction of the A-Train constellation of Earth-Observing satellites. (Credit: NASA).
Artist’s depiction of the A-Train constellation of Earth-Observing satellites. (Credit: NASA).

And speaking of photography, it’s easy to catch a bright pass such as the ISS on camera. Shooting a satellite pass with a wide field is similar to shooting star trails; just leave the shutter open for 10-60 seconds with a tripod mounted camera. Modern DSLRs allow you to do several test exposures prior to the pass, to get the ISO, f/stop, and shutter speed calibrated to local sky conditions.

You can even image the ISS through a telescope. Several sophisticated rigs exist to accurately track and image the space station through a scope, or you could use our decidedly low-tech but effective hand-guided method;

And that’s a brief overview of the exciting world of sat-spotting… let us know of your tales of triumph and tragedy as you sleuth out what’s going on overhead!