NASA cameras on the International Space Station were in the right place at the right time to capture SpaceX’s latest Falcon Heavy launch from orbit.
Thanks to its timing, the January 15 launch was already one of SpaceX’s most spectacular to date. A twilight liftoff highlighted and illuminated the rocket’s miles-long exhaust plume against a darkening sky, producing a sight that, while familiar, was still outstanding. In a way, the timing of the launch of the USSF-67 from Falcon Heavy also allowed the ISS to see the spectacle hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface and far from the launch pad.
It is not the first time a rocket launch produced a spectacle for the astronauts (or, at least, the cameras) who live aboard the ISS. But this is the first time the rare Falcon Heavy rocket launch has been spotted from orbit. Similar in concept to the contrails produced by aircraft at high altitudes, Falcon Heavy produced a giant exhaust plume as it rose out of Earth’s atmosphere, and this exhaust – containing a small amount of water vapor – created artificial clouds.
These contrails are especially visible at the edges of Earth’s atmosphere, about 80 km away, where they can catch sunlight hours before or after sunset or sunrise at the surface. Falcon Heavy’s man-made noctilucent clouds lasted for several minutes, allowing cameras on the NASA side of the space station to snap photos of the clouds as it flew over the Atlantic Ocean far downriver. Physically, Falcon Heavy was catching up with the ISS as it flew east and the two were traveling with the Earth’s rotation, slightly extending the rare window of opportunity. If Falcon Heavy had been launched a few minutes later, the ISS would probably have been out of sight.
Photos of the launch station were taken about seven minutes after Falcon Heavy liftoff, shortly before the upper stage reached Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and the rocket’s twin side thrusters touched down in Florida. At that time, the rocket’s sacrificial central thruster was in freefall toward the ocean and likely moments away from being destroyed by atmospheric re-entry.
Falcon Heavy’s upper stage would still operate about six hours in orbit before deploying two U.S. military spacecraft — carrying multiple satellites and payloads — to a geosynchronous orbit (GSO) about 35,250 kilometers (~21,900 mi), some 21,650 miles higher than the ISS orbits. The Extremely Difficult Mission was ultimately a complete success and was SpaceX’s second Falcon Heavy launch for the US military in less than three months.
Falcon Heavy has already won several NASA launch contracts since its successful launch in February 2018, including the agency’s base Lunar Space Station Gatewaythem European Clipper Mission to Jupiterand the Psyche mission to a metal asteroid. Initially scheduled for launch in the second half of 2022Psyche will be the first dedicated Falcon Heavy launch for NASA and could lift off as early as October 2023.