April 21, 2014

Launch Chasing Worldwide.

The final launch of Atlantis from KSC. (Photo by Author).

Visiting the Florida Space Coast? One of the biggest questions we get here at Astroguyz HQ is where is a good spot to watch a launch from. Certainly, the final launches of the Space Shuttle may see record numbers of viewers; getting that front row “causeway ticket” may be next to impossible. But tracking and watching a launch worldwide may be easier than you think; the trick is to know where and when to look. Currently, 13 countries have spaceflight capability and 19 spaceports or launch facilities are active. What follows is how-to on catching a launch and list of what may be a spaceport near you; keep in mind, the sites that follow are only representative of the most active and/or interesting places to watch;

Where the launches are; countries with current spaceflight capability. (Credit: Saftorangen/Wikimedia Commons).

The Tools: As with anything, research is the key to spotting a successful rocket launch. Spaceflight Now is an excellent clearing house for all launches worldwide and a daily “must check” of ours. Once they’re in orbit, a wealth of tools exists for tracking, from CALsky to Heavens-Above to our fave, Orbitron. And of course, an active discussion community of said launches exists on Twitter, not the least of which is heralded by our very own feed @Astroguyz.      

Launch of Viking 2 enroute to Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

Name: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Country: Florida, USA.

Coordinates: 28° 29’ N 80° 35’ W

One of the seminal launch complexes of the US Space Program, “The Cape” on Florida’s Space Coast needs no introduction. Founded as a USAF rocket proving ground in 1949, Early manned Mercury & Gemini missions departed from here; Cape Canaveral is now home to the unmanned space program. Explorer 1, The Viking Mars Missions, and the New Horizons Mission to Pluto which all launched out of here. A next up mission of note will be the launch of Juno on its way to the planet Jupiter on August 5th, 2011.

Name: The Kennedy Space Center

Country: Florida, USA.

Coordinates: 28° 31’ N 80° 39’ W

  Few realize (including news reporters, sometimes!) that the KSC is a separate facility from the Cape just to the south. This is the home of NASA’s manned space program, established in 1962 largely to support the Apollo program. Every manned Apollo and Space Shuttle mission launched out of KSC. Some future flights to watch for include the final flight of the space shuttle orbiter Endeavour carrying the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the ISS, slipped as this goes to cyber-press to April 29th, and a hoped for final flight of Atlantis and the end of the shuttle program on June 28th of this year. 

Wallops Research Range. (Credit: NASA/GSFC).

Name: Wallops Mid-Atlantic Regional Space Port

Country: Virginia, USA.

Coordinates: 37° 49’ N 75° 29’ W 

Established in 2003, expect to hear (and see) more launches from this eastern seaboard facility. Several successful Minotaur launches have flown out of Wallops starting in 2006, and these can be visible to a large population of the eastern US if they occur at night. Starting in June of this year, a COTS Demo Mission will be staged out of Wallops, to be followed by routine Taurus II flights carrying ISS resupplies starting in October 2011.

Name: Vandenberg Air Force Base

Country: California, USA.

Coordinates:  34° 44’ N 120° 35’

The is the United States Air Force’s west coast launch complex, used primarily to place spy satellites in polar orbits. If a night time launch goes up from Vandenberg, it can be seen from hundreds of miles around, from Los Angeles to Tucson. And yes, the military does launch ICBM tests towards their target site, Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. A never-used west coast shuttle launch complex was conceived to be sighted at Vandenberg. Notable past launches from Vandenberg include a Delta IV with NROL-22, and the recent ill-fated Glory mission. Up and coming launches include NASA’s SAC-D/Aquarius Earth observatory on June 9th, 2011.    

Name: Mojave Launch Complex

Country: California, USA.

Coordinates: 35° 04’ N 118° 09’ W

This high desert launch complex is most notably the home of Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites industries, which flew its first suborbital flight of the SpaceShipOne craft in 2004. The team is looking to go into routine flight operations in 2011-12. In addition to the Ansari X Prize, the Mojave Launch Complex has hosted other such innovative competitions as the Masten Space Systems Lunar Lander Challenge.

Name: Kodiak Launch Complex

Country: Alaska, USA.

Coordinates: 57° 25’ N 152° 20’ W

 Located south of Anchorage, the Kodiak launch facility has conducted 14 flawless launches since achieving operability in 1991. Most notable of these was the launch of a Minotaur IV rocket in late 2010 carrying a payload of no less than 5 miniaturized cubesats, including NanoSail-D2 and FASTSAT, into low Earth orbit. Look for more space related activity from Kodiak, including a military TacSat 4 launch on May 5th.

Name: Fort Churchill  

Country: Manitoba, Canada.

Coordinates: 58° 44’ N 93° 49’

A sounding rocket launch site similar to Poker Flats in Alaska, Fort Churchill was an on-again, off-again facility for sub-orbital launches from the 60’s- the 80’s. Over this period, about 3,500 launches where made from this wind-swept site before official closure in 1990. So why is it included here?  Well, every so often, there are rumors afoot that the Canadian Space Agency may be interested in resuming use of Churchill, along with the proposed Cape Breton Spaceport to be built in Nova Scotia… could launches from Canada once again become a reality? 

Name: Spaceport America.

Location: New Mexico, USA.

Coordinates: 32° 59’ N 106° 58’

Dubbed “The world’s first purpose-built spaceport,” This site near White Sands & Las Cruces, New Mexico aims to create a commercial accessibility to space flight. To date, eight sub-orbital unmanned launches have been achieved. And yes, Virgin Galactic has planned to begin operations from Space Port America sometime this year with 370 participants reserved at $200,000 USD a piece.

Name: The Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Country: Kazakhstan

Coordinates:   45° 58’ N 63° 18’ E

This is where it all started, the first space facility that achieved operability with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957. Since that time, other missions of note included Yuri Gagarin’s first historic manned spaceflight in 1961 and hundreds of manned and unmanned launches. Baikonur now supports missions to the International Space Station with manned and unmanned Soyuz missions, and with the retirement of the shuttle this year will be the sole point of Earthly embarkation to the ISS for the foreseeable future.  

Name: Yasny Cosmodrome

Country: Russia

Coordinates:  50° 48’ N 59° 31’ E

Lesser known than Baikonur, Yasny is a Russian ICBM site that has also hosted some space launches in recent years. Notables include the THEOS satellite and the Genesis 1 & 2 spacecraft for the Bigelow Aerospace Corporation. Another grouping of international satellites will ride atop a Dnepr rocket to orbit from Yasny in June of this year.

Name: Tanegashima Space Center.

Country: Japan

Coordinates:  30° 24’ N 130° 58’ E

Located just south of the island of Kyushu, Tanegashima is the Japanese Space Agencies (JAXA) primer launch site. The Venus Orbiter and Hayabusa all got their solar orbital kick-starts here.  HTV transfer vehicles have been dispatched out of Tanegashima as of late, and expect to see the Epsilon Launch Vehicle under development hitting the pad in the coming years.

Name: Guiana Space Centre.

Country: Kourou, French Guiana.

Coordinates:  5° 14’ N 52° 46’ W

This site near the equator affords launches conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the French Space Agency CNES a 1,000 mph push eastward towards orbit. Ariane IV and V launches are conducted and broadcasted on a routine basis from Kourou, and work is underway to conduct Soyuz launches form the site starting in August of this year. In the near term, look for another shot to launch the Ariane V carrying the dual payload of Yahsat 1A & Intelsat New Dawn, which shut down just prior to liftoff last week.

Name: Satish Dhawan Space Centre

Country: India

Coordinates:  13° 43 N 80° 14 E

This site used by the Indian Space Research Organization has become increasingly active over the years.  Notables include the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) missions and the Chandrayaan-1 and -2 lunar orbital missions. Look for another PSLV launch out of Satish sometime this month!

Random Locales: Sure, the above list of launch sites is not all inclusive. China, Israel, Iran, North Korea and other states conduct sporadic launches, mostly military in nature. Catching one may be tough, as they’re almost never announced and rarely broadcast on SpaceFlightNow. Still, sleuthing these ones out can be fun, and amateur sky spotters can provide an invaluable service by confirming or denying these aspiring space nations claims to orbital fame.

STS-131: A stunning night launch from 100 miles distant. (Photo by Author).

Launch Photography tips: Shooting a launch can be a tricky business; like an eclipse or occultation, you only get one quick shot at a carefully choreographed event. Night launches are the best, as they can be visible for hundreds of miles away; however, expect exposure times to change swiftly. I generally use a 400mm lens in manual mode and shoot from a tripod for shutter speeds slower than 1/10 sec. The age of digital allows us to shoot several test exposures prior to the event in order to “test the sky”. Finally, don’t forget to simply enjoy what you’re seeing! It’s also worth watching for such elusive phenomena as noctilucent clouds or rocket halos ala the SDO launch out of the Cape post launch, and keep tracking these sats as the begin their missions in orbit. Launch chasing worldwide is a great way to supplement an astronomy habit, and also serves to bridge the gap between the public and space science. Few realize that they can see evidence of the space age nightly over their very heads. Get out there tonight and bring the wonders of orbit to them!    

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