Satellite Manufactroversary

Candice eetimesRecently, Rocket Labs, a satellite launch startup successfully lifted into orbit several commercial satellites.  Along with it, they launched a geodesic sphere specifically designed to reflect sunlight to create “satellite flares”.  Such flares are common sights in the early evening or pre-dawn skies.

The first time I saw one, I didn’t know what it was.  I was at an outdoor music concert on the Stanford campus in the early ’80s when I noticed the satellite moving across the night sky.  As a child of the space-age, having been born just months before the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was launched, I had grown up looking for them in the early evenings when the sun still shone overhead but had dropped below the horizon where I lay on the grass watching for them.  It was a rare night that I didn’t see any as more and more satellites were placed into orbit.  But that night, as I visually tracked the path of the small star-like dot moving stately but quickly across the sky, it very suddenly brightened to become the brightest object in the sky, brighter than Sirius!  My first thought was, OMG, did it explode?  No, I was later to learn, the sunlight had briefly reflected off of the flat surface of one of its solar panels to create that brilliant beam of light that traced path through and passed my seat on the grass that evening.

Such flares are common and predictable since we know the orbits of the satellites and their orientation such that we can compute their location, time, and brightness.  You may wish to observe them yourself by using a web-based calculator.  One simply enters their location and the website tells one when and where to look for the next upcoming flare at that location.

You may also look up where the brighter satellites will be visible, including the biggest and brightest of them all, the International Space Station.  Over the coming decades, we can expect that even more and larger space structures will be built, especially as we enter the age of space resource extraction and manufacturing.

Which brings me back to the silly manufactured controversy that the press is making out of the launch of a privately designed and funded satellite whose ONLY function is to create such flares.  The press contacted astronomers to find a small handful that against all reasonable logic, given that they already occur with such regularity, were peeved about this one object placed into orbit.  Quite literally, this one object joins the literally tens of thousands of other objects in orbit, none of which has hampered optical astronomy in the slightest.  Thus, the press is making ‘much ado about nothing’ and I for one celebrate this latest satellite for what it really is; a bright shining announcement of the end of the age of state controlled access to space and the beginning of the age of entrepreneurial expansion.

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