SpaceX/Falcon 9 De-Orbit Burn

I have posted several images here of the launch of SpaceX/Falcon 9 rockets from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. These are easy to see during morning and evening twilight hours. They are less easy to see at night and quite difficult (but not impossible) to see during the day.

SpaceX/Falcon 9 de-orbit burn on the second stage booster as it flies over the southwest United States. The start of the burn can be seen in the upper portion of the image where it increases quickly in brightness.
SpaceX/Falcon 9 de-orbit burn on the second stage booster as it flies over the southwest United States. The start of the burn can be seen in the upper portion of the image where it increases quickly in brightness.

Until recently, I had never seen nor photographed a de-orbit burn on the second stage in preparation for atmospheric reentry. A few photographs have shown up from time to time—the most recent from a launch just a few weeks ago. It turns out that yesterday’s launch (12 April) was very similar: launch from Florida in the early evening, deploy Starlink satellites while over the Pacific Ocean, and then initiate a de-orbit burn as it crosses the west coast and moves across the southwest.

With this information I made a guess at what time the Falcon 9 second stage would move over Arizona and start the burn. I was only off by a few minutes so it was a good guess.

I shot with a wide-angle lens to ensure that my field of view was wide enough to capture the event (it was, until it moved overhead). We could see a small point of light that was both the cluster of 23 Starlink satellites and the second stage booster. Suddenly, it brightened significantly signaling the start of the burn. It was very bright as it moved overhead. At this point, I was not able to photograph it anymore. And that’s too bad because that’s when it got really interesting. For about 20–30 seconds it was like a puff of glowing gas moving across the sky. Really amazing! It ended quickly as the booster moved into Earth’s shadow and the light show was over.

I will probably do things differently if I get another chance. Maybe shoot video? Telephoto lens? Shorter exposures? All or none of the above?

Comets, Sunspots, and Zodiacal Light

There have been few opportunities for capturing night sky objects owing to clouds and the presence of the Moon. That doesn’t stop me from trying.

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks and Triangulum Galaxy (M33).

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks and M33 (Triangulam Galaxy).
Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks and M33 (Triangulam Galaxy).

Clouds, a bright waxing Moon, and some distant light pollution made it difficult to capture this comet. This was taken at the base of Arizona Snowbowl ski area at 2830 m; the elevation helps to get above some of the atmospheric haze.

Sunspots AR3615 and AR3614

Several large sunspots are visible on the face of the Sun (27 March 2024).
Several large sunspots are visible on the face of the Sun (27 March 2024).

Zodiacal Light

Zodiacal light, Jupiter, and Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks (28 March 2024).
Zodiacal light, Jupiter, and Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks (28 March 2024).

While setting up to photograph a launch at Vandenberg SFB (which was scrubbed), I fired off a few test shots of the zodiacal light. In review, I noticed that I also captured Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks. Small–very small–when shot with a 24mm wide-angle lens.

Now, the Moon is out of the way and the forecast indicates a few clear nights so maybe I’ll get another change to shoot some images of the comet.

 

Comet 144P/Kishuda

Last week I was able to get some good images of Comet 144P/Kushida which was located in the constellation Taurus and near the star Aldebaran. Being this close to a bright star makes it fairly easy to find.

Comet 144P/Kushida on 13 February 2024 while it moved through the constellation Taurus.
Comet 144P/Kushida on 13 February 2024 while it moved through the constellation Taurus.
Screen shot from Stellarium showing the field of view at 500mm.
Screen shot from Stellarium showing the field of view at 500mm.

I first shot using an 80-200mm zoom lens. The short end (80mm) gave me a wide field of view to find the comet and then I zoomed to the long end (200mm). After about a half-hour of shooting I decided to switch to the 200-500mm zoom lens. Starting at 200mm to center the comet, I then zoomed to 500mm. The image above is the result of stacking 22 images (11 minutes exposure time) then post processing with rnc-color-stretch and finally, Lightroom and Photoshop. Above is a screen shot from the sky application Stellarium showing the field of view at 500mm.

The waxing gibbous Moon on 18 February 2024.
The waxing gibbous Moon on 18 February 2024.

Bonus: image of the waxing gibbous Moon a week later. The image was converted from RGB to L*a*b color space and then the two color channels were adjusted to bring out the subtle colors of the Moon.

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks

This is the first of what will be many posts on this comet. Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks will be in the western sky in the evening for the next few months and could brighten enough to be visible to the unaided eye. Right now, however, it is quite dim at a magnitude of +9.0 and is located near the star Vega in the constellation Lyra.

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks in the constellation Lyra and near the bright star Vega.
Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks in the constellation Lyra and near the bright star Vega.
Current location of Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks in the solar system.
Current location of Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks in the solar system.
Screen shot from Stellarium showing the location of 12P/Pons-Brooks, Vega, and the constellation Lyra. Rectangle shows the field of view for the 180mm lens.
Screen shot from Stellarium showing the location of 12P/Pons-Brooks, Vega, and the constellation Lyra. Rectangle shows the field of view for the 180mm lens.

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks is a cryovolcanic comet. When exposed to the sun’s warmth the pressure within this cryomagma builds up until it triggers the release of gases, expelling icy fragments (and the gases) through cracks in the comet’s outer layer and into space. 12P has already had multiple bursts which have resulted in rapid brightening.

I ventured to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, an International Dark Sky Park, to shoot images of the comet. As noted above, it very close to the bright star Vega which made it very easy to find. My primary goal was to use my Nikon 180mm f/2.8 AIS lens, a legacy manual focus lens known for value in astrophotography and so that I could capture the full constellation. My secondary plan was to use the Nikon 200-500mm lens at its maximum zoom showing just Vega and 12P.

Owing to being a bit out of practice (it happens), both my focussing and star tracking were suboptimal. Something to work on for my next shoot.

 

 

Stable Auroral Red Arc over Northern Arizona

A strong geomagnetic storm a few days ago (05 Nov 2023) triggered brilliant auroras over high and middle latitudes. At lower latitudes a different phenomena was observed. This was a Stable Auroral Red (SAR) Arc. But this feature is neither stable nor an aurora.

A mix of green airglow and Stable Auroral Red (SAR) arc is joined by a Taurid meteor over Wupatki National Monument in northern Arizona.
A mix of green airglow and Stable Auroral Red (SAR) arc is joined by a Taurid meteor over Wupatki National Monument in northern Arizona.
A mix of green airglow and Stable Auroral Red (SAR) arc over Wupatki National Monument in northern Arizona.
A mix of green airglow and Stable Auroral Red (SAR) arc over Wupatki National Monument in northern Arizona.

From the SpaceWeather.com web site:

During this past weekend’s strong G3-class geomagnetic storm, low-latitude auroras spread as far south as Texas and Arizona. Upon further review, most of those lights were not auroras at all…

SAR arcs were discovered in 1956 at the beginning of the Space Age. Researchers didn’t know what they were and unwittingly gave them a misleading name: “Stable Auroral Red arcs” or SAR arcs. In fact, SAR arcs are neither stable nor auroras.

Auroras appear when charged particles rain down from space, hitting the atmosphere and causing it to glow. SAR arcs form differently. They are a sign of heat energy leaking into the upper atmosphere from Earth’s ring current system–a donut-shaped circuit carrying millions of amps around our planet.

Okay, so it was not an aurora. But it was still pretty amazing to witness and photograph. I even managed to capture a meteor that was part of the Taurid shower moving across the SAR.

But wait, there’s more. There was green airglow in the same part of the sky as the SAR.

Time-lapse of SAR arc and green airglow over northern Arizona (1908–2217 MST 05 November 2023.)

Summary: SAR arc, Taurid meteor,green airglow…and some coyotes.