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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Photographer’s Quick Thinking Captures a SpaceX Rocket Descending to Earth

By Phil Plait

Not long after midnight on May 6, photographer Zach Grether was taking some shots of the Milky Way rising over the Atlantic, as seen from his vantage point on Hunting Island, a dark site near the Georgia border in South Carolina.

While he was taking exposures with a tree silhouetted in the foreground, he noticed movement in the sky toward the south. It took him a couple of minutes to realize what he was seeing, so he quickly fired off 30 exposures to create a five-minute time lapse. What he got was amazing:

What you’re seeing in that video is the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket, boosting a satellite into orbit. That’s the bright yellow streak moving across the sky. But if you look carefully, right at the end of the video, you can see a red streak moving down toward the horizon. That, apparently, is the re-entry burn of the first stage, where three of its nine engines ignited to slow it down as it entered the lower part of Earth’s atmosphere!

That’s phenomenal. Grether was at least 500 kilometers from the action, looking low to the east-southeast for this shot, and was incredibly lucky to catch the re-entry burn (and note you can see it reflected in the water, too). I suspect this is the first time that’s ever been photographed (I have not heard of anyone else capturing it, though I’m happy to be corrected here).

About 30 seconds after he took that shot, the first stage booster landed on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, the first successful landing by SpaceX of the first stage booster after a launch that would send a satellite to geosynchronous orbit—a more difficult landing than had been done before, due to the booster moving at much higher velocity than previous landing attempts. The landing burn was below the horizon for Grether, I’ll note, so you don’t see it in his photo.

The image at the top of this post is a composite of all 30 frames of the time lapse, which he also processed to clean up and bring out the tree and Milky Way in the shot. He wrote a lovely detailed description on his website of how he did it, plus the story of how he happened to catch the launch, too. There’s a good discussion of it on Reddit as well.

As if that weren’t enough, SpaceX tweeted the video, too. That’s a nice bonus.

I love that he got all this by accident; he didn’t even know the launch was happening that night. But it reinforces what I tell people all the time: Look up! There’s an entire Universe unfolding above your head. The more you look up, the more cool stuff you’ll see.

You can follow Grether’s work on his Facebook page, on his website, as well as on Instagram.

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