A few weeks ago, a rocket launch from Vandenberg AFB caused quite the celestial spectacle from the Los Angeles area and even from the deserts of Arizona. The launch was during twilight, and it was so visually impressive that it stopped traffic and was a major news story! Unfortunately, I did not know about the launch beforehand, and I only saw the after-effects in the sky: a crazy upper-atmosphere vapor trail. That was cool, but I had missed the main event. It would have been very easy for me to witness and photograph had I known about it, so I was a little bummed about the whole thing.
Fast forward to yesterday: another satellite/rocket launch is scheduled from Vandenberg! This time I am out on San Nicolas Island, with a great view towards the direction of Vandenberg. The launchpad is about 120 miles northwest of the island. I was outside for the 1 p.m. launch with my camera…nothing. At 4 p.m. I learned that the launch had been postponed until 4:59 p.m. Great! This new launch time would be a little after sunset, and would be, or should be, much more impressive visually. As I prepared to make the short walk up to my favorite high-point viewing spot, the launch was scrubbed. The new launch time would be 1 p.m. the next day.
Today I made my way to the unofficial San Nicolas Island rocket launch viewing site. No one was there, which was nice. (I am the only person I have ever seen there.) But I didn’t see anything happen towards Vandenberg. I came back to the room and learned that there was now a new launch time: 2:11 p.m, an hour later. Again I headed up to the viewing site, arriving right at 2:11 p.m. There was nothing to the northwest of interest. There were quite a bit of cirrus clouds, and some fog and low clouds hugging the ocean waters at altitudes below mine. But visibility was generally excellent. I made sure that my camera and the 200mm lens were ready. I saw some halfway interesting stratus clouds to the northeast and thought about taking a picture of that, but checked the view to the northwest again. And there it was! The rocket launch was in progress, and there was already a vapor trail extending perhaps 3-to-5 degrees into the sky. I had missed the first few moments. I took about a dozen photographs, most of them at 200mm. It was very cool, but not exactly visually stunning like the evening launch in December. In my first photograph or two, I can zoom-in and crop and barely make out a rocket-shaped object at the top of the fiery vapor trail. Hey — not bad for 120 miles away, right?! My camera time stamp says that the first image below was taken at 2:12 p.m., and the last one was at 2:16 p.m.