ULA Delta IV Heavy: Parker Solar Probe and What It Was like to Watch the Launch

Rocket Launch Photography
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This past weekend NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe (PSP), which will study our sun for a better understanding of the star itself and space weather. The probe will be the fastest object NASA ever launched and will reach speeds of up to 430,000 mph (692,000 km/h) when it travels through the suns atmosphere (corona).

The spacecraft is named after Eugene Parker, a 91-year-old solar scientist who revolutionized our understanding of the sun and solar wind.
Fun Fact: This is the first spacecraft NASA named after a living person.

But before the spacecraft can get on its 7-year long mission to explore the sun, it has to be launched first. The Parker Solar Probe will be carried into space by a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket with an additional 3rd stage from Northrop Grumman.

I love to watch rocket launches live and up “close”. It is so different from seeing it on a TV screen. Out at “The Cape”, you experience a rocket launch and you don’t just watch it. It is the noise, the vibrations of the rocket engines and just the pure excitement of being there.

After work, I drove about 4,5 hours from Miami up to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Traffic out of Miami was a nightmare and the heavy thunderstorm which rolled in didn’t help the situation either. It rained so hard, you bearly could see the car in front of you. But about after 30 minutes, everything cleared up again and the sky turned blue again. As I continued the drive up to “The Cape” I watched a beautiful sunset. Because it was still a little bit over 6 hours to go before the launch window would open, I grabbed a nice dinner and slowly started heading out to the NASA Causeway which connects the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center. Be aware to get there you need to be badged or be with someone who has a badge. The Air Force’s launch viewing area is about 2.7 miles away from LC 37. However, trees and bushes obstruct the direct view and from here we were only able to see the top half of the rocket. My badge situation only allowed to view the launch from this location. Unfortunately.

Obstructed view from the Launch Viewing Site

The best public viewing for this launch is along the East-West span of SR-401 near the Cruiseport. The Air Force had bleachers set up just outside the main gate which is at the end of SR-401. From here you are about 8.2 miles away from Launch Complex 37.

I was one of the first persons out there and set up my camera equipment right at the waterfront of the viewing area to make sure I get a good spot before all the other people and buses come in. The weather was good and warm enough to be outside with just shorts and a T-Shirt. A slight breeze kept the mosquitos away.

Parker Solar Probe Mission Badge

The launch was scheduled for Saturday, August 11th, 2018 at 3.33 a.m. (EDT) and about an hour before busloads of people came to the viewing site to view the launch as well. Many brought their cameras others where just sitting on the bleachers or their own camping chairs they brought with them. The other photographers and I started double-checking their equipment to be ready. While we waited we saw a few of the meteoroids of the Perseids Meteor Shower which peaked that weekend. It was pretty amazing and helped kill time while waiting for the clock to count down.

However, due to an anomaly with the ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket, the launch was first put on a hold and about an hour later scrubbed completely as the 65-minute launch window was about to close and the engineers needed more time to asses the problem and check the rocket.

We all packed our gear and were a little bit disappointed. But I also get the point from the space agency side. You want to be sure that the vehicle is ready 100% before shooting the $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe up into space and risk a catastrophic failure. The traffic getting out was a nightmare. Outside the base, it got even worse as there were many people trying to watch along SR-401. Unfortunately, all the nearby hotels were sold out so I had to drive about an hour and a half to get to my hotel. By the time I checked in, it was almost 6 a.m. and I was awake for more than 24 hours straight. I put my gear in the room and it felt so good to just fall in the bed and sleep. I was able to secure myself a late check-out to give me some extra sleep.

During the day I visited the Kennedy Space Center. During the early evening hours, I was able to get some better pictures of the rocket further down at NASA Causeway. Launch Viewing was only available for registered NASA guests there, but because it was so early, nobody was there yet. Within the last few hours before launch, the weather improved from 60% favorable to 95% favorable for the launch. That’s when I headed back out to the viewing area on NASA Causeway. Again one of the first to show up, yeah I know I am crazy.

Today’s (Sunday, August 12th, 2018) launch window will open at 3:31 a.m. EDT and stay open for a little bit over an hour. Slowly but steady more people showed up and buses dropped a big load of visitors just about an hour prior to launch.

Just seconds before the scheduled launch time, the rocket engines ignited and the rocket lifted off on time. While watching the night got brighter and brighter as the engines lit up the night sky. Only a few seconds later the rocket engines cleared the tree line and we were able to see the engines pushing the rocket. With that came the sound, the engines produced while propelling the rocket into space. It is just an amazing feeling to be there and watch it while a rocket lifts off. Because of the night launch, basically, all we could see from the rocket were the engines and the stream of fire they shoot out. It was too dark to see the rocket itself after it got to high.

Courtesy of ULA 

Below a video, I took from the launch of the solar probe. My camera gear is not the most professional one but at least it gives you an idea of what it was being there and watching the launch. It looked so amazing when the rocket went through the clouds and lit them up for a few seconds.

Here is NASA’s launch video of the Parker Solar Probe.

The launch was a success and Parker Solar Probe is now on its journey to the sun where it collects a ton of data. Communication with the probe will be through the NASA Deep Space Network (DSN), which consists of communications arrays all over the globe. To follow the probe and mission updates, check out NASA’s dedicated website.

Photo Gallery

More photos of the launch…