Check out this photograph!
WOAHHHH!!! No, you’re not seeing SpaceX’s attempt to create a wormhole to another universe…
This image was captured by my friend and fellow launch photographer Trevor Mahlman at SpaceX’s most recent Falcon 9 rocket launch that took place at 1:50 a.m. local eastern time on July 22, 2018. The mission was to deliver the Telstar 19 VANTAGE communications satellite to a geostationary transfer orbit, which it did successfully.
At 1:00 minute into the flight, right around when the SpaceX announcer says “Vehicle is supersonic” we see this…
So what is this? Well if you’re anything like me, you may have thought it was the vapor cone we might see when a vehicle goes super sonic… like this!
Or how about this one?
I love those. But no.. it’s not that, those vapor cones stay “connected” to the vehicle.. They move with it… this… this is different.
Right after this phenomenon we hear the call out stating the vehicle has reached maximum aerodynamic pressure. This is also known as Max Q and it’s when the rocket hits the peak of its aerodynamic stress. In other words, the rocket is going faster and faster and faster which increases the pressure on the vehicle, BUT a rocket is also getting higher and higher so the atmosphere is thinner and thinner.
There’s a point at which those two things intersect, where the vehicle is going crazy fast, but after that point despite going faster, the atmosphere gets so thin to almost non-existent, which then decreases the pressure on the rocket.
But… this wasn’t Max Q either…
Ok… so what is this? What you’re actually seeing is the rocket interacting with the different layers of humidity and temperature in the atmosphere. These condensation trails are caused by high temperature of the rocket exhaust creating water vapor which then quickly freezes in the high altitude environment forming what are essentially frozen cloudish things.
We actually see this all the time as rockets pass through different layers of the atmosphere and right when the conditions are just right, boom, condensation trails. Rockets also leave a wake of low pressure which is where you see these rings of condensation happening. So incredibly cool.
And then of course, we’re basically seeing the light from the rocket get scattered through the water and ice molecules and pretty much form rainbows. Dang. A rocket that farts rainbows. What will you think of next Elon? Actually, one of SpaceX’s upcoming rockets will truly utilize what is essentially just farts… their Big Falcon Rocket will use liquid methane and liquid oxygen in the Raptor engines that power it. So then… surely, we’ll see rockets farting rainbows.
And one last thing… condensation trails like this happen all the time, we just don’t always get the right conditions to see it scatter like a rainbow, but in the right circumstances, even airliners can produce this phenomenon and it’s amazingggggg.
If you need a rundown on what this launch was, what it did, where it went and why, I livestreamed along with it and explained all the exciting things that went along in this mission. You can also see my reaction when I saw those awesome condensation trails start. Or you can check out my post-flight round up here!
You can join me for upcoming missions, I start streaming at t minus 30 minutes. Be sure you’re following me on Twitter so you get notifications of when I’ll be covering launches.
While you’re at it, stop on over my Patreon if you’d like to help support me to continue producing content like this, launch livestreams and short and longer form scripted videos… You can hang out in our exclusive discord channel and subreddit by becoming a patron. Head on over to patreon.com/everydayastronaut
Thanks everybody, that’s gonna do it for me, I’m Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut. Bringing space down to Earth for everyday people.s