Chasing and Capturing Rocket Launches

Launch of STS-130 Discovery. Credit: David Dickinson

Seeing a rocket launch is on many a bucket list. We lived near the Florida Space Coast for years, where rocket launches are common. But the good news is, seeing a launch is more common than you might think, and you don’t necessarily have to live near a launch site to see one. The key is knowing exactly where and when to look.

For example: we witnessed a brilliant SpaceX Starlink launch out of Cape Canaveral from about 800 miles (1,300 km) north watching from downtown Norfolk, Va. one recent early Sunday morning. Launches from Florida chasing the International Space Station frequently head up the U.S. East Coast, past the Canadian Maritimes, and out over the United Kingdom and Europe. Similar visible launch geometries occur from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with rockets heading over Alaska into polar orbit.

What’s more, the launch tempo is increasing worldwide. For example, Rocket Lab will start conducting orbital launches out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in 2021. bluShift Aerospace plans to launch its Red Dwarf rocket out of Maine, starting perhaps as early as 2023. Whether you support or decry the effort, SpaceX and OneWeb are rapidly filling the sky with a new generation of Internet mega-constellations. These can be very strange to see shortly after launch, as a chain of ‘stars’ moving across the sky.  

Online Resources to Follow Spaceflight Worldwide 

The keys to catching a launch are planning, patience, and knowing what’s going off when. For years, I’ve followed Spaceflight Now’s worldwide launch schedule, though it can lag a bit when it comes to updates. One of the best is Next Spaceflight’s rocket launch schedule app, which is pretty speedy when it comes to posting launch updates. I also post and follow launches on social media (we’re @Astroguyz on Twitter). These days, most launches are broadcast live on the web, with the exception of launches from a few states with media restrictions (Israel, Iran, North Korea, etc.) China doesn’t broadcast every launch, but will occasionally broadcast high profile space science missions on state-run TV.

Since the earliest days of the Space Age and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory-organized Project Moonwatch aimed at spotting the first artificial satellites, volunteer ‘satspotters’ perform a valuable international service tracking these objects in orbit after launch. They confirm (and sometimes even contradict) the assertions of state-run news outlets. Today, the SeeSat-L message board remains a great resource for cross-talk on what observers are seeing worldwide.

A great way to witness a launch close-up (pre-pandemic) was to apply for a NASA Social (formerly known as NASA Tweetups). This will get you a front row seat, right at the press site. We were fortunate enough to catch one of the final U.S. space shuttle launches this way.   

Dawn and dusk launches are always best. These can be visible for hundreds or even thousands of miles from the launch site, as the rocket’s plume hits the rising sunlight streaming over the curve of the Earth. This can look like the bloom of a giant flower, expanding across the sky. This is a dramatic sight to behold, startling many an unwary early morning dog walker and commuter. These twilight launches can also leave lingering high altitude noctilucent clouds, which may persist for hours.     

Camera Setup

Whether you’re shooting a launch close- up or from far away, your best bet is to use several cameras. I like to have a stationary wide-angle video running on a tripod mount, freeing me up to roam and shoot stills with a DSLR camera. You can apply to NASA beforehand to set up a remote camera near the launchpad. These sorts of setups work using a vibration trigger (available for about $200 USD from MIOPS Camera) to automatically capture the launch… be forewarned though: if there’s a launch disaster, you may not get your camera back. This happened to units poised to capture the uncrewed Antares rocket launch with Cygnus over Wallops in 2014, which exploded shortly after launch.

Remote camera setup for the launch of Space-X Dragon CRS2. Credit: David Dickinson

Be ready to shoot in manual-burst mode to swiftly change exposures as the scene brightens, and the launch changes night into day.  Be ready to change plans and improvise on the fly. I had three cameras ready during the aforementioned Starlink launch… but once I saw just how bright it was going to be, I opted to simply pull out my Android S9 smartphone, and shoot quick stills and video. Those captures were actually what ended up on the front page of Space Weather later that day. Sometimes, it’s simply the camera in hand that catches the shot.      

Be sure to follow those launches once they’re in orbit. In the late 1990s long before Starlink, we witnessed a string of satellites passing over central Alaska from an Iridium launch out of Vandenberg AFB in California. We also once caught sight of four moving ‘stars’ in the winter dawn passing over northern Maine, the result of a SpaceX launch putting the a Dragon capsule headed to the International Space Station in orbit, followed by the Falcon 9 stage 2 booster rocket, and two discarded solar panel covers.

There are lots of satellite tracking sites out there. My favorite is still Chris Peat’s venerable Heavens-Above website. Not only will Heavens-Above list high-profile satellites such as the International Space Station, but it will also filter down what’s currently visible from your location, a good way to pin down the answer to the question “what sat is that?”

We also like to use Space-Track (available to registered U.S. users) to download and plug in orbital parameters called Two Line Elements (TLEs) into a program called Orbitron. This allows me to custom fit recent launches into the program and track satellites on my laptop in the in the field, away from an internet connection.        

Following launches and missions in orbit is a fun ‘sub-niche’ of amateur astronomy. In a slowly changing universe, tracking launches and following what’s in orbit is an entry into the swiftly changing realm of the modern Space Age, where something new is happening overhead, every night.  

Here’s our video of the Starlink-21 launch passing over Norfolk, Virginia:

Home page image credit: NASA/Bill Engalls

About David Dickinson

David is a freelance science writer, frequent contributor to Sky & Telescope and Universe Today, author of several astronomy books and long-time amateur astronomer. He lives with his wife Myscha in Norfolk, Virginia.

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