Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Nice Iridium Flare!

I often check out the website Heavens-above to check for favorable appearances of the International Space Station, as well as Iridium Flares.  The former, of course, is a nearly football field-sized satellite in low earth orbit that can make breathtaking passes shortly after sunset or before sunrise when it is illuminated by the sun over a darkened planet.  Showing an unknowing public bystander always impresses them, especially knowing that it is permanently manned (or womaned!) and they are also looking down upon us...  The website is simple to use - enter your location using Google maps or search for your city, make sure your time is entered properly, and you'll be on your way to observing space objects..

The above-mentioned Iridium Flares, are similarly earth satellites, part of a satellite telephone array, in fact.  They have door-sized shiny antennae that are of known orientation in space, so it can be calculated when a narrow shaft of sunlight can be sent down on your location on earth.  For brief periods of time, they can be the 3rd brightest thing in the sky after the sun and moon!  For an event a couple nights ago, I noticed a bright one (magnitude -7.8 - very bright) would pass just east of Orion tonight.  The map that heavens-above shows is displayed above at left.

So with the chance to show the brilliant flare, as well as some detail in one of the brightest astronomical objects in the sky (the orion nebula), I set up my tracking mount and planned to use my 70-200mm zoom to catch both flare and nebula in the same frame.  We met friends for dinner with the plan to be home in time for the 7:30 picture, and I had everything all set up in advance.

Right on schedule, about a minute before the flare, I spotted it just left of Betelgeuse, and as it approached the edge of my frame I started the 90 second exposure.  I ended up stopping it after 55 seconds when it was out of my frame.  The result is shown here - I just got the entire flare, but the field was narrower than I expected, but still a shot to be proud of.  I'm glad it worked out, and will certainly look out for future photogenic shots.  I encourage you to do the same!

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