Last Friday, SpaceX launched its 18th and final mission of 2017, sending a Falcon 9 rocket out of Vandenberg Air Force Base and into the California sky. The rocket illuminated the sky above Southern California in a spectacularly unusual way, leaving many unsuspecting people to wonder if they were witnessing a comet, aliens, or the end of days. Now, a spectacular 40-second time-lapse of the Falcon 9 has been posted by photographer Jesse Watson.
Watson lives in Yuma, Arizona. Though this latest launch was held at Vandenberg Air Force Base, 400 miles away, he says it was “perfectly viewable” from where he lives in Yuma. Watson followed the SpaceX launches online, he was not satisfied with the quality of the available footage, which was mostly newsreels or cell phone videos. Having never filmed a rocket before he wasn’t sure quite what to expect, but this 40 seconds of footage was well worth the effort.
Watson wanted to be prepared to capture comprehensive footage of the spectacle, so he set up four total cameras: three rolling time-lapse and one for telephoto video. “I wanted to be prepared to capture comprehensive coverage of the spectacle,” Watson explains of the project. “I was a little off target on my initial shot, but… I was able to crop into the 6K time-lapse sequence and salvage the framing.” In all, Watson shot 2,452 images and condensed that into 1,315 images for the time-lapse. The resulting time-lapse is a gorgeous tribute to both his hometown and the combined efforts of man and nature.
Watson was shooting with four cameras and five lenses: two Nikon D810 DSLRs, a Sony a6500, a Sony a7S II, a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, a Nikon 85mm f/1.8, a 25mm f/2.2 lens, and a Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens.
But the question remains, why did the Falcon 9 rocket launch look so peculiar? As the first stage of the rocket flew through the upper atmosphere, it passed through an area of dry, cold air. The engines—burning rocket propellent and liquid oxygen—left a trail of exhaust that froze quickly in the cold, quiet conditions. Very similar to the condensation trails left behind by airplanes. The sun had set just half an hour before on the ground, but the rocket was so high in the air, that the contrails still catched the full sunlight.
The glowing teardrop shape also highlighted the separation of the first and second stages of the rocket, which you can see adjusting in sequential pictures—or this beautiful timelapse of the flight taken by Jesse Watson.