Author Topic: Something to do on New Year's Eve  (Read 750 times)

Offline HenryC

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Something to do on New Year's Eve
« on: November 20, 2010, 09:34:49 PM »
On the very last night of the millennium, 31 December, 1999, at about 11:30 PM EST, I was tasked to perform my husbandly duty, the only thing women really need us for in these parthenogenetic times:  taking out the garbage.  Actually the millennium had already turned, everything four hours west of Greenwich was already 2000, and the new century was racing across the Atlantic for its appointment with the Eastern Standard Time Zone.   It's warm in Fort Lauderdale, even near midnight on New Year's Eve, so I was in my standard domestic uniform, jogging shorts, no shirt, flip-flops. 

The trash cans are located on the west side of the house, and in the shaded area between my place and the neighbor's, shielded from the streetlights, I paused as I often do to look at the stars.  Hanging near the meridian, about as high as it was going to get that night, was the constellation Orion.  In spite of the light pollution and the humidity, sometimes in the winter the sky does get clear here, especially on relatively cool winter nights after a cold front has swept the moisture out to sea and washed the dust out of the air.  Orion looked about as good as it gets  in town and I paused to take it in as I dropped my household refuse into the can.   Orion is probably the most familiar of the constellations, except perhaps the Big Dipper.  With the three bright stars of the Belt, the faint Sword hanging from it at a jaunty angle, and the blazing gems of Betelgeuse and Rigel at opposite corners, it is the central landmark of the winter sky.  Surrounding it, spread across a broad area of sky, is the group I like to call the Octagon, a roughly eight-sided polygon with the bright stars of the winter sky at the vertices, Rigel, Betelgeuse, Sirius, Procyon, Aldebaran, Castor, Pollux and Capella, not to mention a host of other stellar luminaries, clusters and assorted asterisms.    It is a view down one of the arms of the Galaxy, like watching fireflies rushing out of a tunnel.   

None of this has anything to do with what happens next, it just explains why I was there, and why I was looking up.  As I took it all in, out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash.  A sharp, very quick, strobelike flash of light,; about as bright as a first magnitude star.  It is hard to pinpont the exact location of a flash like this, the eye is subconsciously scanning the scene, and we just don't know where it is happening to be pointing when the flash goes off.  Besides, strobes are often carried by aircraft, and sometimes they fly so high that none of their other navigation lights are visible.  I could tell roughly where it was, an area just south and west of Orion, a faint constellation called Eridanus, the river.  But it could have been anywhere in an area twenty degrees across. 

I was in no hurry to go back in, there was still plenty of time before the Dick Clark Times Square Disco Ball festivities, so I stayed there, looking towards Eridanus, expecting to see the next flash shortly thereafter, and this time I could connect the points and maybe see the plane itself.  I waited a very long time, perhaps a minute, way too long for a repeat of an airplane strobe, and I was just about to give it up and go back in when...there it was again!   In the same place, as near as I could tell and this time I got a good look at it. I could position it within a degree or two of it's exact location.  This airplane wasn't moving.    Intrigued now, I settled down and waited, relaxed but alert.  Sure enough, a minute or so later there it was again.  Same light, same place.  Of course, I had no way of judging the elapsed time because I wasn't wearing my watch and I wasn't about to go in and ruin my night vision by getting it.  But the flashes seemed to be, very roughly, about a minute apart.  And they appeared to be identical in brightness.

Around this time, I had been following stories in the astronomical press of weird phenomena called "X-Ray Flashers", strange objects or events that had been detected  by earth satellites, and which were believed to be extremely violent explosions occurring at colossal distances, out amongst the quasars.  Unfortunately, the satellites could get only very rough positions, and astronomers had been hoping that these strange flashers might have an optical component that could be photographed.  Maybe I was getting lucky, and...DAMN! There goes another one!  This was starting to get interesting.  As far as I could tell, all of these things were going off in an area no larger than my fist, held at arm's length.  Perhaps even in the exact same place.   I might be able to get a good enough position to report it, maybe I could get a telegram off to the IAU and maybe they could catch one these guys in the act.  Maybe, maybe, these things always come when you're not ready for them.

Anyway, I missed the millennium celebrations, standing barefoot and half naked in the wet grass, looking up at the sky.  I saw about half a dozen of the flashes (I lost the exact count), and all I could really tell about them is that they were about first magnitude, strobelike in appearance, white, and seemed to come from the same small area of sky, perhaps even the exact same spot.  After the last one, I stayed out for about three quarters of an hour, but they didn't come back.

On New Year's Day, I broke out my star charts and started looking through my library, trying to see if there was anything particularly unusual about this area of sky.  No, there didn't seem to anything unexpected or significant in the Eridanus-Orion area that might explain the flashers.  Since the celestial equator runs through this area, perhaps I might be seeing sunlight reflecting off a geostationary satellite.  After all, there are several hundred of these things, mostly used for communications, and  some employed for more clandestine, national security reasons, strung along the equator, some twenty thousand miles away.  I had heard reports of some of these reflections, off  polished metal surfaces, which had actually been observed by powerful amateur telescopes.  But even though the solar geometry supported this idea, the brightness of the flashers contradicted the hypotheses.  These guys were as bright as the old ECHO satellite of the 60's, and it was a polished silver balloon a hundred yards across and only a hundred or so miles up.  An article in one of my books did happen to mention that in that particular area of the equator there was a "sweet spot" where a satellite placed in orbit would remain there indefinitely without drifting.  It was a stability point. 

Since the earth is not a perfect sphere, it's gravitational field is not perfectly symmetrical, and it is subjected to solar and lunar tides. Orbital platforms placed in geostationary orbits are designed to orbit at the same speed the earth rotates so they remain over the same spot on earth.  (This way our satellite dishes don't have to track them, they just point in the same direction all the time).  But because of the bumpy, asymmetrical shape of the earth's gravity well, the birds have to carry fuel and maneuver occasionally to remain on station.  There are two exceptions where there are stable spots in the orbit.  Satellites placed here tend to roll back into position if  perturbed by gravitational or solar winds.  Naturally, government espionage satellites would have first choice for these primo slots.  I did a quick calculation and, sure enough, on that day, at that time, one sweet spot was in Eridanus, and the satellite would be over the equator, at roughly the same longitude as Florida or Texas, and would stay over that spot continuously as the earth turned, probably eavesdropping on our communications.   Or maybe it was one of ours, listening in on Caribbean Basin radio traffic.  I've read about these things, they are the size of locomotives and carry gauzy wire mesh paraboloid antennas the size of football fields.  They cost as much as aircraft carriers. 

Of course, the gadgets would be designed to be stealthy.  They may be hard to hide, but every effort would be made to make them as inconspicuous as possible.. They would be designed not to reflect sunlight.  So what were the flashes?  Now that I've run out of facts I can be allowed the luxury of speculation:  perhaps I had witnessed powerful lasers being beamed at a satellite in orbit.  Maybe some sort of ranging or calibration procedure.   Or perhaps a deliberate attack, an attempt to blind the bird, knock out the stellar sensors it uses to orient itself in space. 

About the same time of night, exactly twenty-four hours later, I was jogging around the neighborhood.  The clear weather had held and I couldn't help but notice Orion again.  Sure enough, even as I huffed and puffed my way I saw a flash.  I stopped, panting, and watched, for about 20 minutes I saw a half-dozen or so flashes in the same place as the night before.  That day, I had heard on the news (think about that, on the news!) that some of our "spy satellites" had experienced some "minor Y2K problems" but that they had been corrected without major consequence. I didn't believe a word of it.  I think I may have witnessed one of the last battles of the Cold War.
« Last Edit: November 20, 2010, 10:24:47 PM by HenryC »