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HomeAt Home & BeyondSpace Bound: Family, Photography, and SpaceX in Hernando County

Space Bound: Family, Photography, and SpaceX in Hernando County

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It’s not often that everything comes together just right to shoot a great space launch picture from right here in Hernando County or even to have the best view of a launch possible. But it does happen occasionally, and it’s not an opportunity you’ll want to miss.

Such was my chance on March 30 with the launch of a SpaceX Starlink mission. Recognizing that the launch time and weather conditions were perfect, my granddaughter Kaelynn and I grabbed my trusty camera gear and headed out to one of my favorite viewing spots, the Brooksville airport. There’s no guesswork here. I grabbed a spot at the west end of the airport and was looking straight down Runway 9. It was not only a cool view, but it also meant I was looking directly east toward the Cape Canaveral launch pads.

When launch time rolled around, it took almost a minute for the SpaceX Falcon 9 to come into view. But there it was, its long fiery tail burning brightly against the night sky. As we watched for another minute and a half, the rocket arced high to the southeast, following its planned trajectory out over the Bahamas. At an altitude of a bit over 200,000 feet and a few hundred miles downrange, the rocket’s plume went briefly dark and then glowed again as the first and second stages separated and the second stage engine ignited. There was a brief secondary flicker as the now falling first stage’s engines reignited for the “boost back burn,” a maneuver that puts the reusable booster on course to land back at Cape Canaveral.

Finally, after watching for nearly 7 minutes in the perfectly clear air, the rocket faded from view. It always amazes me to think how far away and high the rocket is by that time, just giving credence to the old adage about even a small light overcoming the darkness.

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I got a great shot, but more importantly, I had some good “bonding time” with my granddaughter as we joked around and talked about the night sky while waiting for the launch. We even managed to grab a shot of the Great Crab Nebula in the constellation Orion. Both of us went home with what I’m sure will be a lifetime memory.

I get a lot of people asking about how to view one of these launches, so here are a few tips:
1. Make sure you have a good source of information about upcoming launches. There are several free apps that you can download for your phone that provide launch schedules and real time countdowns. I recommend Next Spaceflight or Space Launch Schedule. Understand that launches often are delayed, so check your app before you head out. And by all means, keep the countdown timer where you can see it when you are outside so you’ll know if there any delays or “scrubs” (cancellations).

2. The most spectacular launches happen within a half-hour before sunrise or after sunset. A bonus of these launches is that you might get to see a “jellyfish.” A jellyfish is a high-altitude phenomenon that occurs when a rocket’s gasses interact with high-altitude sunlight, opening what looks like a huge “eye in the sky.”

3. You should be able to see most any launch from our side of the state as long as it occurs when lighting in the east is dimmer, such as very late in the day all the way until sunrise.

4. A few clouds won’t stop you from seeing a launch as long as they are not forming an overcast near us. Keep in mind that it’s not just the sky here that matters, but the sky all the way across the state. Even if the sky at Cape Canaveral is overcast, you can often still see a launch from here because the rocket will be well above the overcast in just a minute or so after launch. Drier air is always better and your visibility will be much farther. A day or so after a cool front passes is usually optimal.

5. Try to find a spot with an unobstructed view to the east. The more sky you can see in front of you, the better. Keep in mind also that a rocket will either travel in an arc to your right or left after liftoff, depending on its trajectory, so the wider your view, the better. The Brooksville Airport and Pine Island are a couple of great spots. It doesn’t hurt to carry a compass or use a phone app to find due east.

6. Dress for the weather! A light jacket on cool evenings goes a long way, as do long sleeves and “skeeter spray” in the warmer months.

7. If you are using a camera, be sure to set up about an hour early to take some test shots and get everything zeroed in. You will want to use a tripod, as even a little movement in dim lighting will blur your shot. A long exposure is probably your best shot from this far away.

If you follow my articles in the Hernando Sun, I write a lot about spaceflight for a few reasons: First, it’s my lifelong passion. Second, many people don’t know that we are in a new era of spaceflight, with many commercial companies such as SpaceX, Axiom, and Blue Origin competing to provide launch services and private missions into space. Together with other companies born to support the launch services, I firmly believe that the “new economy” of our kids and grandkids will be dominated by spaceflight. As such, we need to encourage our youth now to work on the STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) that will prepare them to earn a living in a robust economy driven by space technology.

So grab your kids and get them outdoors to see a launch. It makes for some great family time, and who knows? You might be setting them up for their future.

A “jellyfish” effect from an early morning Falcon 9 launch as seen from Hernando County in 2022. A jellyfish is a rare phenomenon created by rocket gasses interacting with high altitude sunlight. [Credit: Mark Stone / FMN]
A “jellyfish” effect from an early morning Falcon 9 launch as seen from Hernando County in 2022. A jellyfish is a rare phenomenon created by rocket gasses interacting with high altitude sunlight. [Credit: Mark Stone / FMN]
Great Crab Nebula in the constellation Orion. [Credit: Mark Stone / FMN]
Great Crab Nebula in the constellation Orion. [Credit: Mark Stone / FMN]

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