This coming Tuesday, November 19, the US Air Force will be launching a Minotaur I rocket from te Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Island, VA flight facility. The mission, called Minotaur I/ORS-3, will be carrying twenty-nine (yes, 29!) satellites into orbit. Best of all, it’s going to be a night launch so it should be very visible to everyone in the Eastern United States.
The launch is being carried out by Orbital Sciences Corp, and they have a handy page set up with maps showing where and when viewers should expect to be able to spot Minotaur as it ascends. Here’s a map to give you an idea of when you’ll be able to spot the launch from your location:
Their site has several simulated ground views of where the rocket should appear from various locations such as Washington DC, Raleigh NC, Philadelphia PA, Liberty Park New Jersey, and New York City among others.
Since I live in none of those places, I downloaded their Google Earth kmz file and created some visualizations for myself and my friends. Here’s a simulated view from my house in Westminster, MD:
Here’s a view from Frederick, MD:
And here’s a view from Springfield, PA for my Delco peeps:
What you should expect to see, and when
The Minotaur is a solid-fuel rocket, which is ideal for viewing at night because it produces an orange/red “flamey” tail that’s relatively easy to spot. “Relatively” is the key word here because at the locations I’ve chosen, the rocket will appear as a tiny red dot moving quickly across the southeastern sky in an arc like what you see in the images above (except at night).
The launch window is from 7:30 – 9:30 pm on Tuesday. Naturally, they’ll try to launch at 7:30 but keep in mind that the farther you are from the launch site, the longer it will take for the rocket to clear the horizon. The images I show above assume a flat horizon all the way to Wallops, and we know that’s not the case. Fortunately, Orbital created a first sighting map to give you some idea of when you should expect to see the rocket clear the horizon (keep in mind though that it would have already moved slightly eastward by the time you pick it up).
Minotaur is a four stage rocket, so it will appear to dim and then light up again a little further to the east as the expended stage is jettisoned and the next stage ignites.
Monitor the launch on your smart phone, but watch the timing
If you have a smart phone and a good 3G or 4G signal, you can monitor the countdown on the NASA app for iPhone or on Wallops’ live stream. Android users might want to check out the What’s Up at Wallops app, which contains a compass showing the precise direction for launch viewing[1. Sadly, there’s no iPhone version for that yet. Grrr….].
…keep in mind that everything coming down to your tablet or cell phone is probably going to be a minute or so after the fact. If you wait until you hear them say “liftoff” to go outside and look, the rocket may already have reached orbit. Instead, listen to / follow the countdown to make sure the launch time hasn’t changed, and then use your cell phone’s clock to make sure you’re really at L-0, *then* look toward Wallops!
Watch with friends to increase your chances of actually seeing it
Even at night, the Minotaur may be hard to spot, especially if this is your first time. Haze, aircraft, and all kinds of things can be in the field of view to confuse you even more. If you’re with a small group of people, chances are that one of you will be able to spot it and point it out for the rest. Watch with friends to increase your chances!
Watching and tracking rocket launches is challenging and fun, especially at night. Hopefully the weather from your location will cooperate and you get to see an amazing show. Good luck!