On April 18, 2014 the SpaceX Dragon CRS-3 ISS resupply ship was launched into space. 23 minutes after the spacecraft left the ground, it would provide an amazing show to European observers. Just across the Atlantic, in the Netherlands, I was waiting with the telescope to see what I could capture from the launch. I never had such a favorable opportunity before to photograph an orbiting object so shortly after launch. The timing has to be exactly right and in most cases a satellite is still in a very low Earth orbit when it reaches Europe for the first time after launching from the Cape. This narrows the time window – usually at twilight – when the sun is still capable of illuminating the object. I once succeeded in observing the Space Shuttle with just-released external tank very low above the horizon from the Netherlands, a really amazing sight. You could even make out the appearance that the tank (which was orbiting some kilometers lower) entered Earth’s shadow a few seconds before the Shuttle did. There are no images from this observation as this was a very difficult sighting, just a few degrees above the horizon, way too low to obtain any useful images.

However, the Falcon 9  CRS-3 launch in April also was an amazing sight and was, thanks to the favorable elevation, well-photographed in high resolution. I was lucky that the Dragon was sent quickly after launch into a relatively high orbit, making illumination time sufficiently long to have a good chance to observe Dragon. As expected, the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon were close together when passing in the sky and there were two other items from the launch (solar panel covers) bracketing the pair. By switching the telescope rapidly between the two brightest objects, I was able to obtain detailed images of the capsule and the upper stage with a clearly visible Merlin rocket engine nozzle. Was this the first image of a rocket engine in space obtained with backyard equipment?

This was not the first time I acquired images of a SpaceX rocket engine from the ground; On May 22, 2012, the Dragon C2+ spacecraft (also known as COTS Demo Flight 2) launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40. This Dragon was the first commercial cargo craft that docked to the ISS. The spacecraft lifted up on the two stage Falcon 9 rocket. Several days after the launch, my visibility window of the ISS orbit started, along with the orbit of the Dragon & rocket debris. I could not observe the flight of the Dragon to the ISS due to the later (day lit) window, but there were several favorable passes for the rocket and rocket debris. I visually observed one of the Falcon 9 fairings (cataloged as Debris C) on May 29 while it was clearly tumbling at a low rate, but this and the other fairing  (Debris D) decayed on June 7 and June 9 respectively, well before any imaging could be obtained.

The most interesting remaining orbiting item of the Dragon C2+ launch, however, was the Falcon 9 second stage (or orbital/upper stage) with its big Merlin engine (type 1C). Several favorable passes over the observing location resulted in very useful observations and one of them in nearly excellent conditions. The Merlin engine can be seen clearly in the photograph. In contrast with what is usually the case with Soyuz rocket upper stages from launches of the Progress cargo ship (or Soyuz), the Falcon 9 upper stage looked very stable. No visible sign of tumbling motion was observed during all passes. The images below were obtained with a 10 inch aperture reflecting telescope and the object was tracked fully manually. We see two of the best images of the sequence in comparison with a model of the Falcon 9 upper stage below. The Merlin 1C engine can been seen splendidly.

 

 

 

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About the author

Ralf Vandebergh

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Astrophotographer & independent journalist specializing in high resolution imaging of spacecraft in orbit. Captured ground-views of the last contruction years of the ISS. Took first ever ground-based image of astronauts during EVA. Sub-specialization currently is visualization of rotational/tumbling behave of (dead) satellites and debris/space junk. Writing for different newspapers and magazines about (space)science and technology.