STS-116 Launch From 400 Miles Away


Copyright 2006 Hap Griffin

On Saturday, 12/9/06, the December MAC star party was held at MAC-Hunter. The best treat of the evening was watching the Space Shuttle launch from over 400 miles away. It was scheduled to launch at 8:47 PM, so at about 8:30 we all packed into several cars and headed for a nearby road that dead-ends into a huge open field so we would have a clear shot of the southern horizon. From our location, Cape Kennedy is due south, so following a line opposite Polaris, we pretty much knew where the shuttle would break the horizon. Having seen three previous shuttles from Sumter back when night launches were somewhat routine, I knew that from here it takes about 40 seconds after launch for the shuttle to gain enough altitude to become visible over our horizon. We listened to the launch proceedings on Fox News on my XM Satellite Radio so we'd know exactly when it took off, or if the launch was to be scrubbed.

 When the count reached T-0 and the shuttle launched, the whole southern horizon jumped in brightness! It was like a new city appeared to the south of us! Apparently, the shuttle's engines are so bright that they lit up the high level moisture over the whole eastern coast of Florida! We waited anxiously for the shuttle to appear over the horizon while listening to Mission Control talking to the shuttle pilot. Then at about T+40 seconds, a BRILLIANT orange light appeared coming up over the distant trees rising towards the east. The trail of flame was very apparent and appeared to be 5 to 10 arc-minutes long. It flickered as it arced and it was exciting to hear the roar of the shuttle over the radio while watching it from over 400 miles away!   

 Once the two solid fuel boosters burned out, we lost it visually. However, those watching with binoculars could see the boosters fall away when jettisoned. We lost contact with it until a couple of minutes later when it had traveled northeast and was positioned due east of us underneath the rising constellation of Orion so that we could see the rear end of the shuttle and the light from its three main engines. It appeared as a bright star moving parallel to the eastern horizon. We had hoped to see it until the main engines shut down 8 minutes into the flight, but it disappeared behind some trees to the northeast just a few seconds before that happened.

Date/Location:    December 9, 2006   Bethune, SC
Instrument:    Canon 10D Digital SLR  
Focal Ratio:   F/5.6
Guiding:    None - Tripod mounted
Conditions:    Visually clear 
Weather:    30 F
Exposure: Approximately 40 seconds
Filters:    None
Processing:    Crop of larger frame.  Levels adjusted in Photoshop CS.  Noise reduction with NeatImage.