Comet 46P/Wirtanen, Rocket Launches, and Fog

I went out to the Mormon Lake Overlook early last evening (12/08/2018) to photograph a couple of different events. First was the launch of the ULA Delta IV-Heavy NROL-71 mission from Vandenburg Air Force Base. After that, I planned on pointing the camera up towards Comet 46P/Wirtanen.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen.
Comet 46P/Wirtanen.

Only part of my plans worked out. The launch was scrubbed at T-7 seconds but I didn’t know about that until much later. I just kept shooting a series of 15-seconds exposures pointed towards the western horizon and hoping that I would capture it. No launch—and there was nothing to capture.

But, wait, not so fast! It turns out there was a shallow layer of fog in the Mormon Lake basin and the series of 15-second exposures over a period of about 10 minutes resulted in a nice time-lapse movie of the fog. Unfortunately, the camera was pointed at mostly sky with very little of the ground but I’m happy with the lucky result.

Time lapse showing undulations on the top of the fog layer.
Next, I shot a series of 60-second exposures of the comet. Although the skies were cloudless, there was a lot of moisture in the air. See the discussion above about fog! The presence of this moisture and very thin fog above resulted in very colorful stars. A nice effect.

Light pollution in the night sky.
Light pollution in the night sky.

For the third act, I pointed the camera back down and over the lake basin towards Flagstaff. The fog was dissipating at this time but still shows up well. What also shows up is the large amount of light pollution in Flagstaff. Flagstaff is the worlds First International Dark Sky City but it takes a lot of work to keep the skies dark. I fear we may be losing the battle.

Mars InSight Lander Launch

NASA successfully launched its Mars InSight Lander earlier today. The goal of InSight is to study the crust, mantle, and core of Mars. Unlike previous Mars expeditions, this is not a rover but will stay in one place. The lander will use instruments to delve deep beneath the surface and seek information on the processes that formed the terrestrial planets.

Because the launch was scheduled for the pre-dawn hours, it was possible to see it even in northern Arizona. At least, I hoped so. So I was out and ready for the 4:05 A.M. launch from Vandenburg Air Force Base launch site. The selection of this launch site was unusual as most missions to the planets use the Kennedy Space Center launch facilities in Florida. This was the first interplanetary launch from Vandenburg.

I scanned the western and southwestern horizon after the launch but was never able to see anything. Hmmm…not a good sign. But a quick review of the camera images showed that I had captured the launch. From this distance, however, it wasn’t very bright.

Each exposure was 15 seconds in duration and were combined into a single image. The path of the rocket can be dimly seen against the sky.

Mars InSight launch.
Mars InSight launch.

There had been some speculation that the deposition of ice crystals into the high reaches of the atmosphere might produce noctilucent clouds. Didn’t happen. The rocket exhaust had time to completely disperse before the morning sunlight hit the upper atmosphere about an hour later.