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Editor: Kris Cerone
By Steve Bartlett
A few months ago, I used this space to lament the light pollution in the greater Los Angeles area, complaining that it washed out the wonders of the night skies. Well the pollution is still there, but the light from some pretty spectacular objects still occasionally makes it through the murk. I'll describe one of them here.
The California coast is one of the two places in this country where space launches are routinely conducted. The personnel at Vandenberg Air Force Base, up near Lompoc, perform numerous flights of both missiles and satellite launchers every year. Vandenberg has been the site of Titan, Atlas, Delta, Pegasus, Athena, and Minotaur satellite launches, among others.
On October 14, the Air Force had a Minuteman missile test launch scheduled for just after 7 pm. The combination of a launch just after sundown and the scattering properties of the rocket's solid fuel exhaust meant that there was a good chance of seeing a spectacular aerial display. (This is sometimes referred to as the "Twilight Phenomenon" and has occasionally caused people on the ground to call up police and the media to report UFO's.)
I found myself stuck at work late that night and didn't get to leave until 6:30. I thought, "Great! I'll be stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway and I'll have to miss the launch!" I worked my way through one snarl-up after another and figured that there was no way that I was going to see the launch because I was pointed in the wrong direction. But after I made it through the 405/110 interchange, things suddenly lightened up and I was making good time. I began to think, "Well . . . maybe" and started checking my watch and taking VERY quick glances over my shoulder to see if there was anything rising out of the northwest.
I found more traffic through Long Beach and I felt there was no chance of seeing the launch. Suddenly, several cars decided to get out of my lane and I had a straight shot to my exit. I was saying to myself, "Come on! Come on!" As I drove north on surface streets, I kept glancing to my left looking for lights in the sky. I pulled out my digital camera and rolled down my window, just in case I saw something. Then the local news station announced that the missile had just lifted off from Vandenberg.
As luck would have it, I found myself stopped at an intersection with a clear view towards the north and west as a hazy, white dot rose higher and higher. I grabbed my camera and snapped a couple of pictures just after the start of the Minuteman's second stage.
Then the traffic light turned green and I drove the remaining mile and a half home. I pulled in front of my house, got out, and saw a beautiful, bright, multicolored smear of light in the western sky. That color smear, the remnants of the missile's first stage exhaust reflecting the sunlight, hung in the air for several minutes like a ghostly glowing ribbon. (See photo below.) I'd caught the launch and I didn't have to put myself or anyone else on the road at risk doing it.
When it comes to seeing space launches it usually comes down to being in the right place at the right time. And sometimes that place is right here in the L.A. area.
For more photographs of the launch, see the page in the Gallery.
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