This is a prologue to Iridia Enasteriou’s diary: How she got enthusiastic about Iridium flares and the replacement of the whole Iridium constellation.
Being introduced to Iridium Flares
It so happened on 29 March, 2012 that a friend casually talked to me about a phenomenon called Iridium flares. I had never heard about it, but somehow it fascinated me. So I did some research and got my mind all set: I need to see one of these flares, just to find out what it’s like. Then I’ll be done. I had some knowledge of the night sky and its constellations, but knew nothing about orbits or satellites, let alone how to track them. And I thought it would all be very complicated. I was cooking up ways to get closer to the center lines of the flares, thought of climbing elevated points for a better view and all kinds of weird stuff. No progress was made, but on 26 May, 2012 I left for the beautiful island of Crete, equipped with a long print-out of the CalSKY flare results – a great page for flare predictions and a lot more.
A couple of days later, on 30 May, calmed by the relaxed Greek spirit and the warm evening breeze, I took a chance on my terrace and looked up at Cygnus or whatever constellation the instructions indicated. And, mind you, I immediately saw my first Iridium flare, SV 84, just like that! It was so beautiful and inspiring, and I could not believe how easy it had eventually been. I got completely excited and called Freya, who was vacationing close by. From that evening onwards, we took every opportunity for flare hunting. We quickly decided to start an “Iridium Hunt Bingo“: We wanted to see each of those satellites flare at least once. This, of course, involved some serious book-keeping: When, where, which satellite, which magnitude … And we introduced our very subjective wow-factor into the equation: Every time we saw a flare, we got so excited that we screamed and yahooed so that the whole village woke up and knew our bingo had received another entry. You could call it our flaregasm score. Needless to say that we became avid flare evangelists and tried to pass on our newly found passion to as many people as possible.
Becoming an Iridium flare hunter
In those early days of my flare-hunts, I used all kinds of weird devices to spot the flares. Was is before there were all these apps, or had I just not yet become aware of them? Anyway, have a look at one of those specimen – a clinometer that helped me find the height at which to look for a flare:
It should be noted that this was already an elegant, later version of the contraption. The early ones were completely made by myself from rolled paper and a straw, while this one was bought at Astromedia – they have great stuff.
And in case you were wondering: Yes, the dangling thing serving as the perpendicular weight is a lapel pin of an electric bass head. You can see the machine heads stick out beautifully. I love the night skies and I love music. Just sayin’ …
I briefly skimmed through the Wikipedia entry on the Iridium satellites, but it left no impression on me and did not add up in my mind: Something with Motorola, bankruptcy and ever-changing legal entity suffixes to the Iridium name, something with the military and government – and they had already lost me. I paid no attention and no interest to any of it for many years.
Until one day, I can’t remember where and why and how, I read about the upcoming replacement of the Iridium constellation. Boy, did that get me started! I immediately feared that the new sats would not flare. So I waded through the entire web to find out. A note by Iridium, stating that the replacement satellites “will not flare in the same way“, completely pissed me off. What does that mean, not in the same way? Green flares instead of bright white light? Pulsating light? Honking? I want clear answers, dudes: Will the new sats flare or not? But I guessed that this was just corporate speak for “no“ and I utterly hated and resented the guys – for killing my beloved flares and for communicating in such a way.
I then did some research about when the atrocious thing would take place. To my delight I found out that launch dates were being postponed time and again. Gee, was that a relief! I barely knew that SpaceX existed and couldn’t have cared less. In late August 2016 though, things started to look serious and I checked the launch schedules every day, getting more and more nervous. In the process I got a little more information on SpaceX and Iridium. So, when the September 1 explosion took place, I felt a bit sorry particularly for SpaceX. But hey, that possibly meant a huge delay for the replacement launches, so I rather considered it a reason for mild celebration.
And then things changed very quickly: I came across an article in Wired published in 1998 that talked about the technical marvel that those satellites were, about their unique ability to reach every single spot on our planet, about a pan-national organizational structure and a lot of other fascinating aspects. Suddenly I saw those glinting flares in a much larger context, which made them even more interesting.
I soon after found out about John Bloom‘s fascinating book “Eccentric Orbits“ and was totally fascinated by it (here’s a good book review). It prompted me to order the book and while waiting for it, continue my research on Iridium. And the more I found out, the less aversion I felt. When I finally received the book, I could not put it down any more. It was Christmas 2016 and I spent all my time reading this book, it was the most captivating thing that I had ever read. It portrayed the unique history of a unique satellite constellation that rose like a shooting star and fell and rose again. Those couple of days completely turned me around and converted me into an Iridium aficionada. With every page I turned, I felt more respect for Iridium. By the time I had finished the book, I was totally in love with them and full of admiration for their vision, for what they have achieved, for how brave they were on every step along their way after re-surrection.
Then SpaceX got cleared after their explosive incident in September and announced their return to flight by taking the first ten IridiumNEXT satellites to orbit. When I told my fellow flare addicts about it, they immediately noticed the change in my attitude. “Have we changed sides?“ was their inconvenient question. And I had to answer with an honest and abashed “yes“, as if I had been caught cheating. In an odd way, I dreaded the launch, but at the same time was looking forward to it because I really wanted Iridium to succeed.
But since my enthusiasm never fails to infect others, they soon followed suit and we all buried our resentments and got excited about the first launch. When the day came, I was so psyched up that my heart nearly jumped out of my throat. Mind you, it was also my first SpaceX launch and I guess I don’t need to tell you that it was way beyond awesome. It totally blew my mind.
After that, there was no turning back for me. I wanted to know everything, to understand everything, to be part of the whole experience. As soon as the satellites were in orbit, I wanted to know what would happen to them. So I became a daily reader of the TLEs – the two-line elements describing the orbital parameters. I had to figure out what all these numbers meant. I had no idea what I was looking for, so I just collected data and looked for patterns. I watched videos on orbital mechanics and researched as much as I could. I reactivated my Twitter account which had been dormant for several years, just to see if I could find up-to-date information on Iridium. That’s how I found @IridiumBoss and shyly started asking him about what might possibly be the first orbital maneuver I noticed:
I knew that two of the Launch-1 satellites were supposed to be drifted to a different plane and I thought I had figured out which ones they were. A curious and inquisitive mind like mine wants to know whether it is going in the right direction. I gave receiving an answer to my question roughly a five percent chance – but this is not a reason for not asking, right?
To my great joy I did receive an answer. My assumptions had been correct and a feedback loop started with me asking loads of questions and @IridiumBoss answering them patiently, This has given my learning curve an enormous boost, because I can verify or falsify the conclusions that I have come up with. I’m extremely grateful for that and officially declare Matt Desch the coolest CEO.
Another milestone were the animated videos I created to celebrate Iridium. I had shortly before made my very first animation for another project and really enjoyed the creative process and the ideas started bubbling up in my mind in great numbers. So the one video that I had planned turned into a series of four. While producing them, I realized that I often got sidetracked thinking about a video for Iridium. At first I didn’t want to do it, because it is incredibly time-consuming. But after a certain point there was no holding back. The ideas for the video kept innundating my mind. So I thought I better get going before my synapses get all clogged up .
The first video was a celebration of Iridium. The flares on the one hand, but I did not want it to be too nostalgic and oriented towards what would soon be history. Therefore I included bits of information on what the overall purpose of Iridium is, how and by whom it is used etc. I went through a lot of source material: I revisited the two books that I had read (yes, there is a second one, another fascinating read: Creating Iridium by Durrell Hillis), watched tons of videos and interviews, read articles to get to what I considered the essence. With all the material I had in my mind, I could have made a full-length movie. So I had to cut down and included an annex. In contrast to the entertaining and more humorous tone of the first part – the animation, the annex has a more educational style, pinpointing some hard facts and memorable anecdotes.
I had worked on this video over several weeks, all in all I spent several days of work. I was very happy with the result and still take great pleasure in looking at it. I thought I was done after that, but two more videos followed: Number two is a celebration of the Iridium-2 Launch, the third one an “orbituary” which I later renamed de-orbituary (because no-one seemed to get the pun) for SV 77. You can watch them in my Iridium playlist. There is a fourth video, but it only lives in my head. A series of really crazy funny ideas that keep surfacing again and again. They will probably never see the light of day due to the enormous time investment they would require and owing to the other projects that I feel committed to.
Now, after four launches, I have already developed quite a routine in monitoring the Iridium satellites and replacements: I know what to look for, what data to collect, where to find them and how to organize them, what time-frames to consider etc. My personal mission control center consists of color-coded spreadsheets, ready-made forms that I improve on every launch, and a daily routine for “taking stock“ of orbital maneuvers and processes for how to do all that on the go. You can find out more about that in my IriDiaries of Launch 4 and Launch 5.
Our Iridium Hunt Bingo was completed on Jun 24, 2017, by the way. SV 23 had been the last one missing and we had been chasing it for many months after we had seen all the other satellites flare. We still haven’t stopped documenting our sightings and currently stand at more than 430. Unfortunately they have already become much less frequent, which makes us quite sad. It’s definitely time to start saying #flarewell.
My visit to Iridium
And yes, if you want to know why and how I ended up visiting Iridium HQ and the SNOC in October 2018, I wrote a guest article for the Iridium blog. Probably the most exciting day of my life so far. Enjoy!
I need space!
Speaking about my space interest – It’s not only Iridium: I’ve become interested in a lot of space stuff which I also monitor, although not as thoroughly. I had to set myself very clear boundaries on what missions to follow, because the day only has 24 hours (no idea who came up with that stupid idea).
It even got as far as me applying for a trip to the stratosphere. I would love to see the Earth from above and the blackness of the sky – it’s just unimaginable to me. You can watch my application video here – and feel free to like it on Youtube if you like it in your heart:
So what do folks around me make of my space craze? There’s a bunch of people who are convinced in a very loving way that I am veritably nuts. The good thing is that they are equally nuts, and since we share the same passion, we can act it out at OxidanSky. Which, as you already know, is awesome!