Seeing Iridium Flares with WayScript

Samuel Arbesman
Jun 19, 2019 · 3 min read
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Double_Iridium_Flare_Satellites_plus_ISS.jpg

When I was younger, I went outside one night and saw a tiny star become brighter and brighter as it arced across the sky, only to dim back into near-nothingness. But this magical experience was no shooting star, no supernova. It was nothing natural. It was an example of what is known as an Iridium flare.

Iridium flares are the byproduct of the Iridium satellite network, launched a couple decades ago, to provide satellite phone coverage for the globe. But occasionally the antennas of these satellites reflect the light of the sun in a most brilliant fashion. And even more intriguingly, these “flares” are predictable.

When I went out that night to see an Iridium flare, I had previously gone to the website Heavens-Above, entered my location, and been informed when the next one would be visible where I was.

In the two decades since I first saw one of these, something has happened: the Iridium satellites have started to deorbit. Soon, Iridium flares will no longer be visible.

So, before this happens, how could I easily be made aware of impending flares? WayScript to the rescue! (note: Lux Capital, where I am Scientist in Residence, is an investor in WayScript) WayScript is a powerful tool for gluing together programs and APIs in an easy and graphical way. It also makes it really easy to plug Python scripts into other tools and trigger them, by time or other factors. Essentially, it’s a great general-purpose tool for getting things done and solving little problems like this, where a full-blown web application is very much overkill. It’s also great for me, who even though I’ve been coding over twenty years, do my best to solidly maintain my amateur programmer status.

So, I made a very simple WayScript program: one that extracts the information on the Iridium flare webpage of Heavens-Above, parses the resulting page using a tiny Python script, and if there is going to be a flare in the next day or two, emails me the link to remind me to observe it.

And recently, I went outside, courtesy of my WayScript reminder email, and got to see an Iridium flare.

Of course, there is a lot more that could be done here. I could have a threshold for only emailing me when a flare is of a certain brightness (the one I ended up seeing was a bit underwhelming). I could have the script take the weather into account and only email when it’s clear viewing conditions. I could have it send me the details of the flare in the email, and even send me a reminder text a few minutes before. There’s so much more that could be done.

WayScript easily allowed me to build the minimum viable tool for experiencing a little night-time wonder.

Want to play with this WayScript program yourself? Sign up here and get a copy of my program. To get it to work: you will want to set your location at Heavens-Above properly and then take that URL and copy it into the dashboard for this program. (And coming soon: an easy way of turning your ZIP code into latitude and longitude coordinates. This is left as an exercise for the reader).

Check out arbesman.net to read more of my writing and to subscribe to my newsletter.

Scientist in Residence @Lux_Capital | Author of “Overcomplicated” and “The Half-Life of Facts” | arbesman.net | tinyletter.com/arbesman

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