In a comment below an answer to the question What could have made a satellite appear to move side to side while near the horizon? I've said:

Actually a satellite with flat surfaces - especially solar panels - can deviate quite a bit brighter than expected if the angle is just right. But it's an interesting question how a relatively smooth cylinder, covered in diffuse white paint could do that. It could get dimmer, but I'm not sure if a rocket body can get substantially brighter. Even end-on, the end of a tank would likely be rounded rather than flat, but I'll try to find out if a rocket body has the same "flare" vocabulary as a satellite, it's an interesting question.

Approximate visual brightness of orbital "left-overs" is not so much unpredictable as it is just a lot of hard work with little benefit in most cases. However in serious research (object identification, or monitor of changes) it is certainly done in special cases.

Is there any observational data, or reliable, citable links that address possible large brightness excursions of rocket bodies? This should not include half-exploded craft or those with big plumes of vented propellant. Just the white tube-like ones.

I'm thinking large would be 4 or 5 magnitudes.


1 Answer 1


Based on radio-luminescent measurements done over the years (ex- stealth weapons programs), comparatively large reflections from radio-illuminated objects have been attributed from relatively small portions of the objects surfaces.

The same could be expected in visible light reflections if a certain geometry of a reflective surface concentrates rays toward the observer. *The rotation of a reflecting object could create the illusion of cyclic reciprocal motion (side to side wiggle) when viewed at low angles from its doppler / parallax shift, coupled with some image bending from the 'lensing' of atmosphere. (prominent illusion from multiple overlapping optical factors)

A good verification of this (to confirm the illusion of side to side wiggle is indeed a product of object rotation, and not actual wiggles) would be to compare the frequency of illumination fluctuation to the object's actual rate of rotation. If congruent, then wiggle is illusion...if not congruent, then there may be more going on up there, lol

<< hey, Im just swinging at this, stretching any available artifacts and the neurons carrying them in order to synthesize a logical answer... am not liable for misconstrued or intangible conclusions or non-permanent mode corruption...>>

  • $\begingroup$ Russ - this reads like the output from a Markov chain generator. Could you edit your post to articulate every concept and point you are trying to make. $\endgroup$
    – Rory Alsop
    Feb 16, 2017 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh, methinks you are too critical of this answer. Radio-luminescence fits in wrt to the understanding that intense reflections need not come from a large acreage. He explicitly says in the next sentence that the same concept could be expected in visible light observations. The parallax, doppler, and image bending are clearly a reference to the "move side to side" text in the question (which admittedly is only a reference to another question and not the heart of this particular one. $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    Feb 16, 2017 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Tristan luckily I have an "undo that thought" button on my keyboard. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Feb 16, 2017 at 16:33

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