Iridium from the Jetty

October 1999

John Milner and I met in high school, in English class, in 1962. I was, in John’s words, “a disarranged teenager,” and John was the teacher, and more. He was someone who listened, encouraged us to read and write, gave us credit for our imagination but gently imposed some discipline. I kept in touch (never outgrowing my need for encouragement and discipline), and over the years stopped by his house whenever I visited my parents in Buffalo.

Last month, John came to see us in Skaneateles; it was his first visit ever to our home, and he was relieved to see that I was not living like a disarranged teenager. We were happy to have him and show him our favorite things in the Village.

Friday evening, after dinner at Doug’s Fish Fry, Laurie, John and I strolled out to the end of the jetty, and took in the sweeping view of the lake, the homes and boathouses. (John scanned it all from under a Twix baseball cap that his most excellent niece had given him, but that is another story.) I shared what history I knew, pointed out the Roosevelt House, and the little boathouse that used to be a Quaker Meeting House, told John about a home that had been hauled across the ice one winter on sleds. And then we strolled back in towards the Village; Laurie was looking at the lake, but John and I were gazing up at the outline of the buildings along Genesee Street and at the deepening blue of the northern sky at sunset.

Suddenly, there was a flash of light in the sky, a streak of brilliant white on the blue, like a shooting star or a UFO, and then it was gone. Disappeared. We wondered aloud what it had been. John noted the time, but there was nothing in the paper the next day, no news, no trace. I assumed we were never going to know what we’d seen, and it would just be one of those things that goes unexplained. Forever.

Instead, it was explained in less than a month, in the pages of Wired magazine, and then on the Web yesterday morning. The flash of light was the glint of the sun off the communications antenna array of a satellite, one of about 70 put up beginning in May 1997 by the Iridium company (at a cost of $3.4 billion) to form a global mobile phone network.

Iridium antennas are made up of three mirror-like panels about the size of a door, made of Teflon, coated in silver. They form a pyramid facing the ground. When the sun hits an Iridium satellite, it reflects the light in a big way. At the peak moment, the reflection, or flare, is 50 times brighter than Venus, about as bright as a half moon (the orb, not the cookie) and can be seen over an area of 20 square miles. They call the flashes Iridium flares; they last from five to 30 seconds, and are especially easy to see in the early evening or pre-dawn skies. They are so bright you can even see them through clouds.

The first flare was seen on August 16, 1997. Earlier satellites hadn’t created flares this dramatic because their surfaces weren’t flat and reflective. I went into the Web, found the Heavens Above site that provided detailed schedules for any locality in the world, typed in “Skaneateles,” and it gave me a complete guide to the flares I can see over the next week. Wonders truly never cease.

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