Photographing A Sunrise Rocket Launch

Photographing a sunrise
rocket launch near
Kennedy Space Center, Florida
A four-minute exposure, taken minutes before sunrise, captures the successful launch of an Atlas V rocket rising from Kennedy Space Center. As the rocket climbs above the horizon, its vapor trail glows orange and yellow as it becomes backlit by the sun. Reaching the uppermost atmosphere, the trail turns blue as the rocket enters thin air and heads toward high-orbit where it will position an early-warning satellite.
Launch spectators watch the sun rising over distant Kennedy Space Complex and the Banana River.

The recent uptick in activity from NASA, SpaceX and others, creates opportunities for photographers to capture Florida launches at various times of day and night. Nighttime and twilight launches generate the most interesting and luminous trails. The “launch arc” capture is done with camera on a tripod and shutter open for 90 to 300 seconds. Getting an accurate exposure requires setting up in advanced and making test exposures. I start with an aperture of F-13 ,shutter speed of 300 seconds and ISO of 100 then make adjustments to ISO and aperture to get a balanced exposure.

Nighttime Rocket Launch
Night Launch of Atlas V taken from New Smyrna Beach. The stars show moderate trailing in this 5-minute exposure.

At night this is easy–the light is constant and one can expose for the stars. Near sunrise or sunset–the ambient light reaching the camera is increasing or decreasing very quickly–and the test shots will have to be done minutes prior to launch. Its exciting, a bit nerve wracking, but ultimately rewarding when practice and luck come together!

Night Rocket Launch
Liftoff! Night Rocket Launch taken from Apollo Beach 22 miles north of Kennedy Space Center.

Bob Gibson is a Jupiter Florida based landscape and wildlife photographer, photography instructor and Nikon Services Professional member. E-mail