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With the flare-producing Iridium communication
satellites [link] just about all deorbited now, you can no
just check a viewing schedule on your phone (Heavens-
Above! [link]) and head out on just about any given night
see with your naked eyes a bright streak of sunlight
off a satellite flying above you. Iridium's new
satellites don't have the big flat antenna panels that
reflected the light so well.
Therefore, I propose launching a few satellites to
deliberately produce flares, on demand. Members of the
public would be able to submit requests via a website or
phone app to receive a flare. The satellites would also
produce flares on a predetermined schedule, to allow
spontaneous viewing like with the Iridium ones.
The satellites would have aimable mirrors, as opposed to
the fixed antennas on the Iridium satellites. This would
mean that fewer satellites could produce more flares
with ground tracks where viewers want to view them
(mostly cities), while avoiding flares where they're
diswanted (i.e. astronomical observatories, normally
sited away from cities). The Iridium satellites couldn't
control their flares' ground tracks at allthey just
occurred at effectively random locations on Earth, most
of which passed over no viewers.
The satellite design could be pretty simple: Just a great
big flat mirror (as big as will fit in the launch vehicle
fairing), and, at one end, a small box with the computer,
thrusters, reaction wheels, solar cells, and radio. The
flare brightness could be modulated, if desired, with a
liquid crystal light valve over the mirror (expensive, and
reduces max brightness by ~50%, but allows fast
modulation) or by tilting the mirror away from the
desired ground track and back onto it (cheaper, but
slower, and produces the inverse signal on an adjacent
The ability to go outside at night, make a request by
tapping a few buttons on your phone, and, a few minutes
later, see a point of light zooming across the sky exactly
where and when the app said it would, optionally
flashing a Morse coded message*, would probably help
remind people that we really do have thousands of things
up there doing work for us.
*paid extra for regular users, free for humanitarian
communication or when the message is "EARTH IS
(Urban astronomers, just be glad I didn't put this in the
category Public: Street Lighting!)
Wikipedia: Satellite flare § Iridium flares
Mentioned in idea body [notexactly, Sep 21 2019]
Heavens-Above: Iridium flare prediction page
Mentioned in idea body [notexactly, Sep 21 2019]
||Sorryclicked the wrong button again and deleted [MaxwellBuchanan] anno saying the ISS is good for flare viewing. True. But you can't request a flare at a specific time (from a list of possibilities) or with a specific Morse code message from it. (But you can talk to real live humans aboard it by ham radio, which is pretty neat!)
||I really need to do something (uBlock Origin cosmetic filter, userstyle, userscript,
) to hide those [delete] buttons. Or I could just post an idea about the site having something to solve that problem.
||I thought flares went out of date in the 1970's.
Presumably the factories could be de-
||The Russians proposed lofting a mirror to provide artificial moonlight in Siberia.
||Maybe something using Cubesats could be done. We like Cubes ...
||I was envisioning the body of the satellite to which the mirror is attached as being in the shape of a cube.
||<Turns up Cube Intensifier Ray another notch/>
||Today I was thinking about this again, specifically about the possibility of making the first one a CubeSat
(because those are a lot less expensive than regular satellites to build and launch) to prove the technology
and demand before scaling up.
||Also, upon rereading the idea, I had the thought that the mirror could be made in two parts that slide over
each other. Then the flare brightness could be reduced from 100% to 50% as the modulation, without the
expense and optical inefficiency of a liquid crystal light valve, and without the inverse signal on an adjacent
ground track that you'd get by just tilting the mirror, though it would still be slowunless you did it in two
fully-overlapping arrays of parallel stripes of mirror, so that the moving part wouldn't have to move as far to
go from no mirror overlap to full mirror overlap. Only modulating down to 50% is probably okay; it would
enable viewers to visually track the satellite between the flashes, like a bike light with a 'pulse' mode.
||Another thought I just had is that, IIRC, the Iridium flares had pretty narrow beams*, meaning that you have
to be in just about exactly the right place on Earth (across-track beamwidth) and you only see the flare for a
few seconds even though the satellite takes a minute or two to cross most of the sky (along-track
beamwidth). That's fine if you're sending a "will you marry me?" message, but we'd probably want a wider
beam for greeting whole cities (which would be a regularly-done thing, not needing to be ordered). To
achieve that, the mirror could be slightly flexible, with a cord to pull inward on the far corners of it to make
it curve a bit, widening the beam in a controllable manner. But that can be a feature of the later satellites,
not necessarily included in the CubeSat pathfinder.
||Also, commercial advertising should probably not be allowed on these satellites, even though it could bring in
a lot of money (from advertisers whose target audiences know Morse code, anyway).
||*Later, upon looking it up, I see Wikipedia says 10 km in diameter.
||I had another thought. A seemingly good CubeSat configuration for this (if a smaller mirror is
sufficient) would be 3U, with a fixed mirror on one long side and hinged mirrors on the two
adjacent long sides, deployed after separation from the launcher to fold out and make a .3 m × .3
m mirror. A very slightly rippled surface on the mirroras would probably naturally result from
manufacturingwould be enough to widen the beam so that it could be practically seen. (If the
mirror was perfectly flat, and the satellite orbited at around 200 km, the spot size would be about
1.9 km due to the angular size of the Sun as viewed through the mirror.)
||Wikipedia describes the Iridium antennas as "door-sized" and capable of generating flares up to
-9.5 mag, even though they don't look anywhere near as reflective as a proper mirror, so this
specific CubeSat configuration might be visible without binoculars and without having to view it
from a very dark place.
||If the two folding mirror segments were connected to voice coil actuators (such as are used for
hard drive head arms), they could be used for pretty fast modulation from 100% down to 33%,
while only producing an inverse signal of 033% amplitude on an adjacent ground track, which
would be less visible than a 100% inverse signal on the adjacent ground track.
||To further reduce interference on adjacent ground tracks, it also occurs to me that tilting the
mirrors away and back according to a triangular profile (rather than a square profile, where they
tilt to a second position, hold that position, and tilt back) would spread the interference over a
wider area, reducing the maximum amount received at any one point on the ground.
||To enable modulation down to near 0%, all that's needed is to tilt the two hinged mirrors by
different amounts. That will cause an imbalanced torque on the satellite body, resulting in the
fixed mirror tilting to the side somewhat as well. However, its amplitude will be smaller, which,
combined with the diffuse shape of the beam, will mean some light still gets reflected toward the
target, but it'll be pretty close to 0%.
||(Aiming of flares could be achieved with reaction wheels, as with any active flare satellite
configuration, but care would be needed to keep the roll-axis RW from fighting the above-
described reaction roll that enables modulation down to near 0%.)
||[Links] added because I showed this to a friend and he didn't
know what was referred to, so didn't have much context to
understand the purpose of the idea.