What’s That Bright ‘Star’ In The East? Why Sudden Flares, Brilliant Flashes And Weird ‘Drones’ Are Being Reported This Week
This week is an ideal one for stargazing, but the real reasons to go outside after dark are not stellar.
Intense heat in parts of the northern hemisphere is making late-night soirées into the backyard the coolest part of the day—and in more ways than one.
Last night I ventured out about 10pm, and from my east-facing position saw some incredible sights. No wonder, then, that there have been various reports of flares, flashes and even mystery bright drones … though things are not what they seem.
Here’s a full explanation of what’s going on, what I saw and what you, too, can see any night this week or next if you get outside, look up … and keep looking!
As reported by SpaceWeather.com, the International Space Station (ISS) is occasionally being seen at double its usual brightness. The orbiting laboratory with seven astronauts on board in June had a new solar panel called iROSA, installed by astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet. It apparently caught a beam of sunlight and redirected it toward Earth.
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It’s easy enough to see the ISS this week as it crosses cities in North America and Europe during the night. It takes about five to seven minutes to cross the sky and looks like a constant and very bright white light.
2. The drone: the planet Jupiter
Where: due east
In an amusing report from Scotland this week a police officer is said to have feared she was being pursued for miles by a drone. It turned out to be the planet Jupiter, which is this month becoming much brighter and more prominent.
The “King of Planets” reaches its annual “opposition” on August 19, 2021 when Earth passes between it and the Sun. Closer and bigger and consequently at the brightest it ever gets in our night sky, that geometry also means that Jupiter rises in the east at sunset and sets in the west at sunrise.
It’s this week rising before midnight in the east, with less bright but still prominent Saturn to its upper-right in the southeast.
3. The flash #1: satellites
When: the two hours after sunset and before sunrise
For those of us living at mid-northern latitudes it’s satellite-spotting season. The Sun doesn’t dip all that far below the horizon at this time of year, so satellites in orbit are brighter and easier to see crossing the night sky as they catch the Sun.
You’ll also notice some of them glinting brightly for a split-second as their solar panels or metallic surfaces momentarily flare. There are over 4,000 satellites orbiting our planet.
4. The flash #2: Delta Aquarids and Perseids ‘shooting stars’
When: July through August
If you see ant slow-moving “shooting stars”—specks of comet dust colliding with Earth’s atmosphere—at night this week or next they’re probably from the Delta Aquarid meteor shower, which is active from mid-July through late-August.
They appear to come from the constellation of Aquarius, so will travel generally from the southeast. If you see any coming from the northeast (and moving a touch faster) they may be early Perseids, though that meteor shower doesn’t really get going until the second week of August.
Moon-gazing and stargazing this week
Aside from these potentially confusing sights, the night sky is this week also home to the lovely sight of a waxing gibbous Moon and the “Summer Triangle” stars. Look east after dark and, above Jupiter and Saturn, you’ll see the bright stars Deneb and Vega high up above Altair below them, forming a triangle shape. Let your eyes adjust to the dark and you’ll see many stars in and around this area of the sky, even from a light-polluted city. Why? You’re looking at a rich sea of our own Milky Way galaxy …