By Craig Davis, CraigslegzTravels.com
CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION
The spacecraft on a mission to study the sun took off amid a fireball so bright it was as if we were looking at the sun itself.
Even from four miles away the powerful thrust of the Atlas V 411 rocket lifting the Solar Orbiter on a late-night launch from Pad 41 was blinding to the naked eye.
No matter how many rocket launches you’ve watched on television or YouTube, it doesn’t prepare for the experience of seeing one for yourself, particularly at night.
The power of 1.2 million pounds of thrust lifting a 189-foot vehicle — taller than a 17-story building — is mind-boggling to imagine and incredible to witness.
(Editor’s note: Glenn Davis (@GDavisPhotos on Twitter), a spacecraft integrator for United Launch Alliance, photographed the launch of the Solar Orbiter using three Sony cameras stationed within 100 yards of the Atlas V 411 rocket and programmed to begin recording images when triggered by the sound of the rocket engines.)
Launches such as the Solar Orbiter spacecraft in February 2020 have become a common sight in Central Florida with the escalation of the commercial space industry. There are multiple launches most months with SpaceX and United Launch Alliance maintaining an ambitious schedule of launches for commercial and military clients and NASA.
2020 is setting up as a milestone year with manned flights expected to resume at Cape Canaveral for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. SpaceX is aiming to launch its Crew Dragon capsule with astronauts on board between April and June.
Boeing must solve multiple software issues that marred the test flight of its Starliner capsule before NASA will certify it to fly with a crew atop a ULA Atlas V rocket. A second unmanned test may be required.
Busy launch schedule
Meanwhile, a busy ledger of launches is unfolding at Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX had upcoming missions to add to its array of mini satellites for Elon Musk’s Starlink broadband network as well as flights to resupply the International Space Station.
ULA’s work is primarily for the U.S. government, much of it highly secretive. Notably, an upcoming launch of the mysterious X-37B orbital spaceplane on an Atlas V in May and a classified spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office atop a Delta 4-Heavy rocket in June.
The Feb. 9 launch of the Solar Orbiter stood out as unusual and special. A joint effort of NASA and the European Space Agency, the probe will provide new insights into the sun and how it affects Earth. A titanium heat shield coated in calcium phosphate will enable the spacecraft to withstand temperatures up to 970 degrees as it passes within 26 million miles of the sun on a large elliptical orbit over the next seven years.
From a personal standpoint, the Solar Orbiter launch was special because it was the first I’ve witnessed directly, rather than on television or video. Long overdue, considering my fascination with space flight began while watching John Glenn’s Mercury orbital flight on a classroom TV in elementary school.
Solar Orbiter launch
Our son Glenn is a payload integration engineer for ULA, which provided the opportunity to watch the solar mission take flight from a viewing area not accessible to the public in direct sight of the launch pad. But before going to work for ULA, Glenn photographed many launches from nearby areas that are open to public viewing, such as Playalinda Beach, the closest vantage point for ULA and SpaceX launches.
The launch of the Solar Orbiter wasn’t as grand as some. The Atlas V 411 had just one solid booster strapped to the main stage. When ULA launches the sixth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite for the U.S. military in March, it will be on an Atlas V 551 with five solid rocket boosters.
But every launch is an adrenaline rush, Glenn assured us, particularly those that occur at night. This one was accentuated by a full moon on a near cloudless night.
A flash signaled ignition of the main engine, followed by the eruption of a giant fireball rising quickly from the pad.
Then came the standout feature of every launch: that incredible crackling rumble of sound.
It took several seconds before the sound waves made their way across an expanse of water to the west of the launch area. It was felt first as a vibration in the chest before reverberating in the ears.
The entire event passes quickly. Hypnotized by the rapidly rising light, the spacecraft initially seemed headed our way as it rolled onto an east-southeast trajectory.
The course provided a memorable signature of this launch as the Atlas V passed beneath the position of the moon on its way to orbit. Photographers captured spectacular time-lapse images of the streaking rocket as a flaming arrow seeming shot toward the moon.
Follow the progress of the Solar Orbiter mission at the European Space Agency site. The probe is already sending data back to Earth.
Cape Canaveral launch schedule
There are various sources for upcoming missions, beginning with kennedyspacecenter.com.
Other outstanding sources:
Spaceflightnow.com provides a comprehensive catalog of launches around the world and their respective missions, including the Russian Soyuz flights.
Be aware that launch schedules are very fluid and it is common for flights to be delayed and rescheduled. A good way to keep track of the status of an upcoming launch is to check the Twitter pages of the two primary commercial companies currently flying from Cape Canaveral: SpaceX @spacex and United Launch Alliance @ulalaunch
Where to watch launches
There are a number of options on and off the Kennedy Space Center complex. The LC-39 Observation Gantry is only 2.3 miles from ULA’s Atlas V launches on pad 41 and 3.4 miles from SpaceX’s Flacon 9 launches on complex 40. There is a $49 launch transportation ticket fee in addition to the $57 daily admission to Kennedy Space Center. Space often sells out early.
There are prime launch viewing opportunities outside of the complex without investing more than $100 a person. The sites listed above offer detailed information about areas such as Playalinda Beach, Marina Park, Sand Point Park, Parrish Park, Space View Park, Manzo Park in Titusville, Kelly Park East along the Banana River in Merritt Island and others favored by the locals. Some waterfront restaurants can also offer a view of launches.
How to photograph a launch
One of the most coveted images is the popular nighttime streak shot.
To capture one of these, set your camera to bulb mode;
Pre-focus your lens;
Set it to manual focus;
Adjust the ISO to 100 and stop your lens down to approximately F20;
With the use of a cable release, open the shutter seconds before launch and keep it open for one to three minutes, depending on how wide of a lens you are using.
(Note that before launch the image will look dark, the light from the launch will provide plenty of illumination for the image.
Spaceflightnow.com has a helpful guide for equipment and settings needed to capture the launch in various lightning conditions.
Space history lives at Cape Canaveral: Craigslegz Travels explores the cape.
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Check out Glenn’s work in a previous Craigslegz Travels feature about a photography tour in Scotland.