Capturing Rocket Launches

by | Sep 7, 2011 3:00pm
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Kimberly Inge Photo

A Delta II rocket is readied for launch at Cape Canaveral Air Station on September 7, 2011. On board are two unmanned probes destined for the moon.

CTTechJunkie.com contributors Tony Land and Kimberly Inge are at Cape Canaveral this week for the launch of the unmanned GRAIL mission. 

Capturing NASA’s rocket liftoffs can be a challenging, and sometimes frustrating experience.

During the actual lift off of any space vehicle, photographers and observers must be a safe distance from the vehicle - usually the media viewing area several miles away is the closest you can physically be during ignition. But to capture those spectacular shots of rockets during lift off, a closer vantage point is needed.

To achieve these close up shots, 24 hours before a scheduled launch, NASA allows a select group of photographers and journalists to place remotely triggered cameras inside the launch pad perimeter, as close as 100 yards from the vehicle. As the human operators will be miles away, and wireless operation of the cameras is impractical, different methods of triggering them at the appropriate time is required.

Tony Land

An Atlas V rocket moments after ignition.

Many space launches have a particular ‘window’ the vehicle can launch within. Depending on the mission purpose and orbit the vehicle will take, this window can be hours long to mere seconds. While NASA likes to target for a specific time, any number of reasons can cause the launch to be slightly delayed in the respective window. Since one never knows exactly when the rocket will ignite, a very common method of triggering the camera is by using a ‘sound trigger.’ A sound trigger, in our case, is simply a slightly modified decibel meter, connected to the camera. When the ambient noise reaches a certain level, the camera will begin to fire.

See photos of remote camera set up for the GRAIL mission

For the upcoming GRAIL launch, it’s even simpler. The window for this particular launch is only one second long. If the rocket does not fire in its 1 second window, it won’t fire at all. For the planned September 8 launch, 2 one second windows will be open - one at 8:47AM, the other at 9:16AM. With a launch window that precise, we can instead use a simple timing mechanism to fire the camera, however we’ll still use the sound triggers as backup.

After obtaining our media credentials, we proceeded to Gate 1 of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base where we met NASA media escorts. Our escorts directed us to load their vans with our equipment, and we headed out to the pad 17 Delta complex. Once there, we were given a briefing on where we could place cameras, and where we could not. We contemplated camera placement, and potential shot composition - with both launch windows just before and after 9:00 AM, we felt a west facing shot would be best to take advantage of the early morning light. Our second camera was placed on the southwest side of the pad, which was done primarily to avoid the smoke and debris which will be thrown during the launch.

Leaving a camera out for a day and a half unattended has some concerns. The first is having the camera and its tripod blown or knocked over by gusting winds, rocket exhaust, or careless fellow photographers.  A set of tent anchors in the ground and bungee cord tied to the tripod keeps everything secure.

Read more about Space Shuttle photographers

The other concern is exposure to rain and heat. While some photographers have elaborate protective cases made from wood, plastic, or in one case - a mailbox, I find these larger setups to be a bit cumbersome. They also take up lots of room in the NASA media vans, and require many trips back and forth to carry it all out to your site. As someone who likes to travel light, I prefer to be able to carry everything in and out, by myself. In the past, simple plastic trash bags have worked wonderfully and protect from the rain, while a top layer of ordinary household tinfoil reflects much of the sunlight and keeps the camera temperatures down. Lastly, a ultraviolet filter on the front of the lens keeps any rain or debris off the lens itself.

After yelling at the camera to test our sound triggers, we give them both a once-over and bid them fair well and hope they will capture a few good images in those first seconds of liftoff.

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