Observing a Rocket Launch - The DART Mission (NASA/JPL/SpaceX)
Just before Thanksgiving, a group of friends and I drove up the coast from Los Angeles to Vandenberg Space Force Base near the town of Lompoc to witness the launch of the Double Asteroid Redirect Test mission, or DART. The test, if successful, will herald in a new era of research and development in techniques and technologies for planetary defense against potentially catastrophic impacts from Near Earth Objects (NEOs). Along with my small entourage, we were joined by some friends and colleagues of mine from Griffith Observatory, The Planetary Society, JPL, and small bands and families of fellow launch enthusiasts all gathered to take part in the enterprise of space exploration.
Figure 1 courtesy of NASA
This Ain’t No Picnic
So, there we were, sprawled out on blankets, huddled around tripods supporting huge telephoto lenses, sharing binoculars, listening to the livestream countdown happening nine miles and 30 seconds of delay away, hoping for the skies to remain clear with a historic launch looming.
Figure 2 Relative size of the double asteroid Didymos and Dimorphos. Courtesy of planetary.org
While still being a bit esoteric, planning out a short road trip to see a rocket launch is quickly becoming a mainstream hobby. As we stand on the precipice of a new global space race, we occupy a very special place in the history of space exploration. We have eccentric and controversial billionaires creating and riding in their own rockets, a looming mission to return humans to the surface of the Moon for the first time in 50 years, a sprawling fleet of next generation ground and space-based telescopes and observatories promising to revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos, new rocket companies springing up out of thin air, a burgeoning new astro-tourism industry satiating dark sky starved city dwellers, and the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, SpaceX’s Starship, designed with enough Delta-V to ferry Earthlings to Mars. Rocket companies like SpaceX are innovating so fast that the Apollo-era attitude of “failure is not an option” has morphed into a spectacle of design testing in near full view of the public so that high-definition livestreaming videos of rocket explosions is an almost regular occurrence.
The last launch I saw at Vandenberg was the Sentinel-6 climate observation satellite which occurred smack dab in the middle of the pandemic and was one of first outdoor events I attended since the lockdown began. Though the air was tense with all our pandemic induced anxieties, traumas, and newfound (for some) social awkwardness, all discomfort and uncertainty were cleared away as the countdown neared T- and ticked over into T+.
The flame of a rocket is surprisingly bright. After the rocket is already hundreds of feet in the air and traveling at near Mach 1 as the creeping rumble is slowly felt in my core and in my feet. The faces of my friends brighten in the glow. The sheer speed is visceral. The complex engineering that culminates in a rocket launch is not obvious to the unlearned observer but is still somehow intuited. And then, after the launch, after the first stage separation, after MECO and SECO, after the plumes of vapor and gas, and the long arc of the second stage toward its destination in space, because I am watching a SpaceX launch, we still have the second act of the launch: the landing of the first stage booster.
After some moments of waiting, the booster is spotted by someone in the crowd pointing. After some scanning, we eyeball a small skyscraper careening out of the sky at an ungodly speed. I sense a slight feeling of unease. Am I quite sure we’re far enough away from the landing pad!? Is this safe!? There’s a small building hurtling out of the sky! Should we get behind something in case all goes wrong!? And then, nine miles away and hundreds of feet up, the return stage engines light, the booster slowly decreases its hectic speed, and after some careful maneuvering, more slowly, more slowly still, the giant softly and gracefully touches back down to Earth on the landing pad.
From our vantage point at the park, we see the top of the booster just peaking above a line of stucco condominiums. About a minute later we all hush and wait for the sound of the delayed sonic boom caused by the craft as reached supersonic speeds in it’s descent.
Alas, for the DART mission launch the first stage booster was designated for an at-sea landing on SpaceX’s drone ship landing platform, named “Of Course I Still Love You” after spaceships in the “Culture” series of post-scarcity sci-fi novels by Ian M. Banks. Due to this fact and due to the fog, we missed out on the booster landing and even the first stage separation and plume. No matter. Witnessing the launch of a craft that is basically going to test out punching an asteroid so that humanity doesn’t go the way of the dinosaurs is a joy in and of itself.
Figure 3 courtesy of americaspace.com
Next up on the list of high-profile launches will be the absurdly long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (current proposed launch window is 12/24/211220-1250 GMT (7:20-7:50 a.m. EST)) which I’ve had the distinct pleasure and honor of visiting twice in its clean room facility at Northrup Grumman in Redondo Beach, CA. Still, as the co-host of the Astronomy Cast podcast Pamela Gay says, “all space craft are dead to me until they launch”. It’s too much of an emotional investment. But launch it will and after a six-month trip and deployment process to LaGrange point 2, it is designed to see further back into the unfoldment of the universe than any other optical system in history.
And after that, hopefully some more Starship and booster development, crash, burn, redesign rinse and repeat and some possible orbital launches in 2022 down at Boca Chica, TX on the Gulf of Mexico as we witness the creation of the vehicle that will deliver Earthlings to the surface of the red planet. Beyond that, lots more Starlink satellites slated for launch, along with ISS bound Crew 4, a Falcon Heavy launch, and that’s just SpaceX. Don’t forget Soyuz, Atlas 5, Electron, Proton, SSLV, PSLV, Antares, Ariane 5, Vega C, launches plus the long-awaited Space Launch System (SLS) launch of Artemis 1 on an uncrewed test flight with the new Orion capsule to orbit the Moon in preparation for a return of the next man and first woman to the lunar surface sometime in the next few years…hopefully.
This is your lifetime. By pure chance or divine decree, you happen to be alive during the beginning of the second great space race. Before you know it, humanity may be a space fairing species. We may have research stations on Mars in 10 years. While you’re here now, why not check out how it all got going? Find yourself this year at a live, in-person rocket launch and you will not regret it. You may even become a full-fledged launch hunter as many people do. Whether at Vandenburg in SoCal, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Boca Chica, ESA’s site in French Guiana, JAXA’s complex near the southern tip of Japan, Russia’s Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan, or a host of other launchpads around the globe – these facilities are like next-gen cathedrals. Places of pilgrimage. Sanctuaries to restore our spirits and lift our hopes.
Figure 4 artwork by Alan Nagle
IMAGING A ROCKET LAUNCH
A quick note about photographing rocket launches. Unless you have specialized gear and know what you’re doing I would suggest keeping your phone in your pocket and just enjoying the sights and sounds. Even when I haul out my telephoto zoom lens, tripod, camera, etc. and I get halfway decent footage, I’m always a tad bummed I watched the whole thing from my viewfinder on the back of my camera or spend the whole launch looking back and forth from the viewfinder resulting in shaky footage.
That said, there are some amateurs out there that get unprecedented access and amazing footage so if that’s your passion, go for it.