The lights in the sky are coming down

Perpetually falling around the Earth is a constellation of 72 Iridium communications satellites.  There are thousands of objects orbiting our planet, but the Iridium satellites are special.  Because of a quirk in their design, every so often the Iridium satellite’s meter-wide antennae flash in the sunlight.

From the ground, a light brighter than a thousand stars appears, flares, and fades.

People’s reaction to this phenomenon gives me a special joy.  That people track these winking satellites, that small groups of friends travel to where a washing-machine sized piece of space technology will fly over head, that they point their cameras and their gaze skyward to catch a few seconds of brilliance, four hundred miles away — it fills me with inarticulate fondness for humanity.

This year, Iridium launched the first batch of next generation satellites to replace their old fleet.  The new satellites are re-designed and are not so reflective; in a few years there will be no more Iridium flashes.

The old satellites will fall out of orbit and burn up in our atmosphere, and species of strange lights in the sky will go quietly  extinct.

I am not an amateur astronomer; even given an entire lifetime I doubt I would have ventured out to see an Iridium flare with my own eyes.  And yet, I’m glad I discovered this obscure, temporary marvel before it was gone.


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