Stunning Astrophoto Captures Awe Inspiring NASA Rocket Launch Amidst Star Trails – Gallery

The rotation of the Earth captured in the trails of the stars over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Jan 23, 2014. NASA’s latest Tracking & Data Relay Satellite, TDRS-L, is seen here hitching a fiery ride to orbit atop an Atlas-V rocket, as viewed from the Turn Basin on Kennedy Space Center just a few miles away. Credit: Mike Killian/www.MikeKillianPhotography.com/AmericaSpace
see Atlas V/TDRS-L Launch Galley below
Story updated[/caption]

Space photographer Mike Killian has captured an absolutely stunning astrophoto of this week’s Atlas V blastoff that innovatively combines astronomy and rocketry – its the streak shot featured above. See additional Atlas launch imagery below – and here.

Mike’s awe inspiring imagery melds Thursday night’s (Jan. 23) spectacular Atlas V liftoff of NASA’s latest Tracking & Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with brilliant star trails, reflecting the Earth’s rotation, moving in the crystal clear dark sky overhead and brilliantly glowing xenons and flaming reflections in the waters beneath.

Update 30 Jan:
This fabulous star trails/streak image has been featured as the APOD on Jan 30, 2014.

TDRS-L awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket. Credit: Mike Killian/mikekillianphotography.com
TDRS-L awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket. Credit: Mike Killian/mikekillianphotography.com

The 3.8 ton TDRS-L communications satellite was successfully delivered by the Atlas V to orbit where it will become an essential member of NASA’s vital network to relay all the crucial science and engineering data from a wide variety of science satellites – including the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched at 9:33 p.m. from Pad 40.

Read my complete Atlas V/TDRS-L launch story – here.

Killian’s very creative image makes it looks as though the fiery rocket plume is slicing and dicing a path though the wandering stars as its thundering off the pad, arcing out over the Atlantic Ocean and soaring on to orbit.

And it’s all perfectly framed – as detailed below in my interview with Mike Killian.

Water reflection shot of NASA TDRS-L satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II - www.scriptunasimages.com
Water reflection shot of NASA TDRS-L satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II – www.scriptunasimages.com

Mike is a space friend of mine and we recently spent launch week together photographing the Jan. 9 Antares rocket launch from NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia, amidst the bone chilling cold of the Polar Vortex – which by the way has returned! See a photo of us freezing together at NASA Wallops – below!!

See our Antares launch imagery – here and here.

Be sure to enjoy the Atlas V gallery herein including more space photog friends including Jeff Seibert, Alan Walters, Walter Scriptunas II and nasatech.net

NASA TDRS-L relay satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com
NASA TDRS-L relay satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

Mike’s magnificent new astrophoto was snapped from the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center – located right next to the world famous countdown clock and the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

The two launch sites – NASA Wallops and Cape Canaveral/NASA Kennedy Space Center – sit about 800 miles apart on the US East Coast.

His stunning new astrophoto was several years in the making and the result of rather careful planning and of course some good luck too.

Mike is a very experienced and exceptionally talented and accomplished photographer in general.

So for the benefit of Universe Today readers, I asked Mike to describe how he planned, executed and processed the fabulous Jan. 23 star trail/Atlas launch photo.

“I’ve wanted to attempt this shot for 2 years now & finally the conditions for it came together Thursday night – no moonlight, no clouds, barely a breeze, mostly dry air & enough TIME between sunset and liftoff to capture some descent star trails,” Mike Killian told me.

What was the shooting time and equipment involved?

“Approximate total shooting time was about 3 hours, 380 20-second exposures @ ISO 400, shot with a Canon T4i w/ a 11-16mm Tokina 2.8 lens,” said Killian.

“For the launch I adjusted those setting for the rocket’s bright flame, did that exposure, then took the images and stacked using Photoshop. All images are the exact same framing.”

Killian took the photos from right along the edge of the water basin at the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center, located right next to the VAB where NASA’s Saturn V Moon rockets and Space Shuttles were processed for launch.

NASA TDRS-L relay satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com
NASA TDRS-L relay satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

Why shoot from Kennedy Space Center instead of Cape Canaveral?

“I chose to shoot from the water’s edge at Turn Basin mainly because of the water, I always like a nice reflection from the xenon lights and the launch itself.

“Plus I knew nobody would shoot from there, as both the VAB roof & Cape Canaveral were available for media to view from (both have fantastic views).”

“I wanted to do something different.”

“Generally we get an hour or so at whatever area we are shooting any given launch from, before heading back to the press site.”

“But since the Turn Basin is AT the press site, the location was open for several hours due to TDRS-L being a night launch.”

“So I had enough time to attempt this shot from about as close as you can get (4 miles or so)!

Is Mike pleased with the result?

“I’m happy with how this one came out!” Mike ecstatically told me.

For some background on the VAB and the imminent end of public tours inside – read my new VAB story, here.

And here’s my daytime shot showing the Turn Basin and Mike’s approximate shooting location at the KSC Press Site. Mike is shooting in the opposite direction – from waters edge looking to the right.

View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the Turn Basin adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center Press Center and the countdown clock. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the Turn Basin adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center Press Center and the countdown clock. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Chang’e-3, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

Remote camera shot of NASA TDRS-L relay satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II - www.scriptunasimages.com
Remote camera shot of NASA TDRS-L relay satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II – www.scriptunasimages.com
The TDRS-L mission begins as the Atlas V-401 roars from the pad. Credit: nasatech.net
The TDRS-L mission begins as the Atlas V-401 roars from the pad. Credit: nasatech.net
NASA’s TDRS-L blasts off atop Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Mike Killian/mikekillianphotography.com
NASA’s TDRS-L blasts off atop Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Mike Killian/mikekillianphotography.com

Spectacular Go Pro TDRS Launch Video by Matthew Travis

Space journalists Ken Kremer/Universe Today (left) and Mike Killian  and Alan Walters  of AmericaSpace (center, right) setting remote cameras at Antares launch pad amidst bone chilling cold for the photos featured herein.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Space journalists Ken Kremer/Universe Today (left) and Mike Killian and Alan Walters of AmericaSpace (center, right) setting remote cameras at Antares launch pad amidst bone chilling cold. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

Spectacular Nighttime Blastoff Sends Critical NASA TDRS Communications Relay Skyward from Cape – Photo Gallery

The dual Atlas V rocket engines roar to life on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41. The launch vehicle will boost NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-L, spacecraft to Earth orbit. Liftoff was at 9:33 p.m. EST on Jan. 23, 2014.
Credit: NASA
Story updated[/caption]

A spectacular nighttime blastoff lit up the evening skies for hundreds of miles around the Florida Space coast on a mission that sent a critical NASA communications relay satellite to orbit this evening, Jan. 23.

NASA’s huge Tracking and Data Relay Satellite L (TDRS-L) is now safely in orbit following tonight’s successful launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The Atlas V rocket was launched at 9:33 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 into crystal clear skies that gave excited spectators an uncommonly long and stunning launch spectacle that was well worth the wait.

The 3.8 ton TDRS-L satellite will become part of a network providing high-data-rate communications to the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble Space Telescope, launch vehicles and a host of other research spacecraft that relay absolutely critical flight, telemetry and science data.

Water reflection shot of NASA TDRS-L satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II - www.scriptunasimages.com
Water reflection shot of NASA TDRS-L satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II – www.scriptunasimages.com

The recently launched Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo carrier also relays data via the TDRS system.

The ISS, Hubble and all these other spacecraft could not function without the TDRS network of relay satellites.

Liftoff of NASA”s TDRS-L atop Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014 from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Credit: NASA
Liftoff of NASA”s TDRS-L atop Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014 from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Credit: NASA

The TDRS-L satellite will also be used to track and relay vital information for the maiden launch of NASA’s next generation Orion human spaceflight capsule slated for Fall 2014.

Read my latest Orion update – here.

“TDRS-L and the entire TDRS fleet provide a vital service to America’s space program by supporting missions that range from Earth-observation to deep space discoveries,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“TDRS also will support the first test of NASA’s new deep space spacecraft, the Orion crew module, in September. This test will see Orion travel farther into space than any human spacecraft has gone in more than 40 years.”

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-L) payload at 9:33 p.m. EST today from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: Ben Cooper/Launch photography
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-L) payload at 9:33 p.m. EST today from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: Ben Cooper/Launch photography

TDRS-L arrived in geosynchronous transfer orbit about two hours after liftoff. It will orbit at an altitude of 22,300 miles.

The venerable Atlas V rocket is one of the most reliable and well built rockets in the world.

Indeed the Atlas V has been entrusted to launch many high value missions for NASA and the Defense Department- such as Curiosity, JUNO and the X-37 B.

Clear of the lightning wires, the Atlas 5-401 accelerates to orbit. Credit: nasatech.net
Clear of the lightning wires, the Atlas 5-401 accelerates to orbit. Credit: nasatech.net

The last Atlas V launch from the Cape occurred in November 2013 and sent NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter on a voyage to the Red Planet.

NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

And the two stage rocket is being man-rated right now to launch humans to low Earth orbit in the near future.

The Atlas V has been chosen to launch two of the upcoming astronaut ‘space taxis’ as part of NASA’s commercial crew initiative to launch human crews to the International Space Station.

Just today, Sierra Nevada Corp announced that their Dream Chaser mini shuttle will launch to orbit on its first flight on Nov. 1, 2016.

TDRS-L is the 12th in this series of communications satellites.

It is identical to the TDRS-K spacecraft launched in 2013, which was the first of the third generation of TDRS satellites.

They were built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., and have a 15 year design lifetime.

NASA will now conduct a three month in orbit checkout.

TDRS-M, the next spacecraft in this series, is on track to be ready for launch in late 2015.

TDRS-L awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket. Credit: Mike Killian/mikekillianphotography.com
TDRS-L awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket. Credit: Mike Killian/mikekillianphotography.com

This is the third generation of TDRS satellites.

“The TDRS fleet began operating during the space shuttle era with the launch of TDRS-1 in 1983. Of the 11 TDRS spacecraft placed in service to date, eight still are operational. Four of the eight have exceeded their design life,” said NASA.

The Atlas V launched in the 401 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing and no solid rocket motors. The first stage was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine. The Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A-4 engine.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Chang’e-3, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

Pictured in Astrotech’s payload processing facility on 3 January 2014, TDRS-L resembles an enormous insect and will form the 12th member of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite family. Photo Credit: Mike Killian Photography/AmericaSpace
Pictured in Astrotech’s payload processing facility on 3 January 2014, TDRS-L resembles an enormous insect and will form the 12th member of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite family. Photo Credit: Mike Killian Photography/AmericaSpace
Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace