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A Stellar Morning For Shooting Things In The Sky

Thursday morning was the long-delayed launch of the ULA Atlas V AEHF-5 mission. Lift-off was scheduled for 5:44 AM. It was going to be a long night.

I set out across the state to meet up with three and a half other photog friends (one dude brought his 10-year-old son, hence the half). We set up on the beach at Cherie Down Park, about 13 and change miles south of the launch pad. With the rocket launching into the sunrise, it was going to be a glorious sight.


Just minutes before blast off, there was an issue and things were put on hold. The problem was quickly fixed and another popped up straight away. Things were looking bleak and the sunrise was coming fast. Within a few minutes, things were back on track and a new launch time of 6:13 AM was set. We had maybe about five minutes to adjust things for a significantly brighter sky than originally planned.

I was pretty sure I had it when the horizon to the north lit up with a rocket.

I had it. The launch is a single 108-second exposure at 18mm, f/22, and ISO 100. I had my ND filters ready to go if it had gotten much brighter out.

While the launch is friggin’ awesome, the real show happens after it gets up in the sky. With the sun illuminating the exhaust plume from below, you get an unreal looking thing in the sky. The exhaust plume expands into the giant sky jellyfish. It’s mind-blowing.

The two white dots on the left side are two of the five boosters as they fall away from the main rocket.


You can see all five boosters in this shot.

After a while, MECO happens, Main Engine Cut-Off. It’s exactly that. The main engine cuts off before the first stage separates and falls into the ocean. Right when MECO happens, there is a little anomaly that happens. It happens fast. If you blink you might just miss it. You get these ripples in the exhaust plume.

Because of where I was shooting from, I had an angle looking almost straight the engine. I zoomed in to 300mm and waited. It’s almost like what it would look like inside the plume (which is massive) looking at the engine burn. Right before MECO, I saw the wiggle and got the ripples.


You have no idea how hard I was freaking out when I got this shot. I’m pretty sure I was screaming curse words very loudly on the beach.


I then zoomed out to get the whole scene.


People all across the state could see this in the sky as they were driving to work. TV and radio news stations were getting calls that a rocket exploded or that maybe a comet burned up in the atmosphere. Really. People were freaking out.

Best sunrise ever.

So we got out to the beach at about 4:00 AM to start shooting. There were plenty of Perseid meteors lighting up the night sky over the Atlantic. While I got some meteors (still working on editing those frames), we got something even better. An unexpected Iridium Flare. And a double flare at that!


There are only a few Iridium satellites left that make predictable flares and none were in the area. Upon looking at what I thought was a super-bright meteor, I realized that its streak across the sky spanned four 30-second exposure frames. That is a satellite, for sure. But what was it?

I emailed the person who runs the Catch The Iridium website and also searched several sites that track satellites. One site let me run a simulation of what was in the area that could have made a flare. It was Iridium 16, which has been out of service and tumbling along since 2005. It just happened to be in the right place in the sky to reflect the sun from two of its three antennas as it fly by out over the ocean. This was more luck than anything else. But we had five people with cameras pointed in the right place (another friend was on base and was shooting from there).


In this shot there are a whole lot of other things happening. The constellations Orion, Taurus, and The Seven Sisters (aka The Pleiades cluster) were up in the sky. There was some lightning out over the ocean on the horizon (as well as a really bright boat). And on the beach was a sea turtle nest (which is roped off to keep people from messing with them). Pure night sky magic.

A crop of the double flare!

If my meteor frames and star trail edits turn out ok, I’ll post them later in the week. This Iridium picture was a pain in the butt to edit. I maybe had the ISO up a hair too high and had a lot of stars and artifacts to contend with. Going a step down would have made the flare and meteors really pop while keeping the sky a nice even dark blue hue. No worries. It came out all right, it just took three days to figure out.     

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