The Joy of Missile Launches

December 13, 2020  •  7 Comments
NROL-44 LaunchNROL-44 Launch

We're back in Florida and just in time for one of the most active missile-launch seasons on record. We've had the Crew Dragon Missions along with numerous Starlink and other commercial SpaceX launches. Photographing missile flights is one of the "perks" of living here. During the Space Shuttle times, each launch was a major event. As the program wound down to the last few flights, literally millions of people flocked here to see, and photograph, these magnificent machines fly. And then it all ended. For almost ten years, there were few missile launches and some were so shrouded in secrecy, that you didn't know about them until the last minute. But once SpaceX got the bugs worked out on the Falcon 9, things started to pickup. This year Spacex will launch 24 rockets, most from Cape Canaveral.

Over the years, I've gotten to photograph quite a few launches. Generally, the daytime launches are fun, but not that visually stunning. You get a lot of white "smoke" around a skinny tube, and a bit of fire at the bottom. After you've taken a few, you realize that they all pretty much look the same. The sound that a rocket makes is the real treat! But the sunrise, sunset, and night launches are more spectacular and much more challenging to photograph. Rocket motors generate HUGE amounts of light. You go from pitch black to the equivalent of brilliant sunlight in a fraction of a second. You need to shoot in manual and have all your settings ready to go. The newer missiles clear the tower in about 10 seconds from ignition! If you are also shooting a "streak shot" (see below), you will need to trigger your second camera, mounted on a tripod. Once the missile has cleared the launch tower, the rocket motors are so bright that you will rarely see the actual missile. Unlike daytime launches where you can get the missile and the rocket plume, at night you are basically shooting just the plume, looking for interesting patterns. Typically, the main engines shut down after two and a half to three minutes. At that point your shoot is over. From first click to last is usually less than three minutes! If you haven't guessed, I prefer nighttime launches.

Waiting for a launch, St. Johns RiverWaiting for a launch, St. Johns River

While the actual photography is quick, getting to that point isn't. For one recent Starlink launch, the mission was scrubbed (postponed) twice before it finally launched on the third try. So, I gathered my gear and went out to an airboat ramp along the St. Johns River to take a streak shot, each time.

So, you're standing around, in the dark, with alligators hunting for food and mosquitos trying to dine on you, while the launch gets delayed later and later. But sometimes you get to practice some long exposure shots to check your settings. Sometimes the results surprise you. So, on the second night I went home with one "keeper" image for three hours waiting and numerous bites. So you go out the next night and the missile does launch. But just before it does, a rain shower gets between you and the launch. And so, your streak is only a little sliver under the rain clouds. That image cost three nights work!

Starlink LaunchStarlink Launch
NROL-44 TrailNROL-44 Trail

But sometimes you get lucky. One of the best missiles to see launch is the Delta IV Heavy. These are used for launching particularly heavy payloads, like reconnaissance satellites. They use a large main rocket, with two booster rockets strapped to the sides. They are loud and light up the night like the Sun! NROL-44 was scheduled for the other night and I thought the weather looked good, so I gave it a try. I found a nice spot, all to myself, to set up my tripods and cameras. And although there was a several hour delay, it launched in its usual, spectacular way. If you enjoyed these photos, you might want to look at my Space and Astronomy page. Enjoy!


Comments

Jim Bogner(non-registered)
Unbelievably striking.
Thanks for taking one for the team in regards to letting the mosquitoes feast on you to get these shots.
Jim Sciacero(non-registered)
Great shots as always. No sure I would have the patience you had, but your persistence was worth it.
Les(non-registered)
Very nice image! I like the reflection.
Nick Dunagan(non-registered)
Mark - Some incredible shots. Really appreciate the opportunity to continue to see your excellent photography. Not many launches from Tennessee, but would being at the Cape for a launch is on my bucket list. Thanks again for sharing and hope things get back to normal soon and travel can begin again.
Cathy Dunagan(non-registered)
Mark, these photos are stunning and, as you said, a welcome diversion from sitting at home. Thank you for sharing your work.
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