Rocket Stages  &  Rocket Engines


Photography of spent rocket stages in orbit is in general no more difficult then capturing images of cargo spacecraft. With the difference that cargocraft are usually found in (very) low Earth orbit, in the region of the International Space Station, while rocket stages can be found in many different orbits and altitudes. Cargocraft and rocket stages can sometimes be found in each other's vicinity, when they just launched, especially if they can be observed in their first orbits around the Earth. In the last years, I came across some excellent occasions to observe such combinations when private space company SpaceX launched their Dragon cargoships to the ISS. For different reasons, the timing of launch suited perfectly for observing from my location in Western Europe, the Netherlands. The Dragon capsule and upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, together with some launch debris could be observed in the first orbit after launching from Florida, after crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Capturing smaller detail, such as rocket engines is a special challenge but in practice and in some occasions, it seems very well doable.

Some of my first images of spent rocket stages in orbit. Left: Upper stage of a Vostok rocket that launched the Cosmos 1093 satellite on April 14, 1979. Right: Upper stage of a Titan IVB rocket that launched the Lacrosse 4 satellite on August 17, 2000. Images taken on May 23, 2008 (left) and June 9, 2008 (right), using a 10 inch telescope with attached camcorder.



Rocket Engines photographed from the Ground

Falcon 9 Upper Stage & Merlin Engine 
Dragon Demo flight 2

On May 22, 2012, the Dragon C2+ spacecraft (also known as COTS Demo Flight 2) launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40. This Dragon was the first commercial cargo craft ever that docked to the ISS. The spacecraft lifted up on the two stage Falcon 9 rocket. Several days after the launch, my visibility window of the ISS orbit started, along with the orbit of the Dragon & rocket debris. I could not observe the flight of the Dragon to the ISS due to the later (day lit) window, but there were several favorable passes for the rocket and rocket debris. I visually observed one of the Falcon 9 fairings (cataloged as Debris C) on May 29 while it was clearly tumbling at a low rate, but this and the other fairing  (Debris D) decayed on June 7 and June 9 respectively, well before any imaging could be obtained.

The most interesting remaining orbiting item of the Dragon C2+ launch, however, was the Falcon 9 second stage (or orbital/upper stage) with its big Merlin engine (type 1C). Several favorable passes over the observing location resulted in very useful observations and one of them in nearly excellent conditions. The Merlin engine can be seen clearly in the photograph. Contrarily to what is usually the case with Soyuz rocket upper stages from launches of the Progress cargo ship (or Soyuz), the Falcon 9 upper stage looked very stable. No visible sign of tumbling motion was observed during all passes. The images below were obtained with a 10 inch aperture reflecting telescope and the object was tracked fully manually. We see two of the best images of the sequence in comparison with a model of the Falcon 9 upper stage below. The Merlin 1C engine can been seen splendidly.

                                    Part of unprocessed video recording of the Falcon 9 upper stage. The Merlin engine can be seen separately

Falcon 9 Upper Stage of SpaceX CRS-3

Another occasion to photograph a Falcon 9 upper stage with Merlin engine was on April 18, 2014 when
the SpaceX Dragon CRS-3 ISS resupply ship was launched. Exactly 23 minutes after the spacecraft left the ground, it would provide an amazing show to European observers. Just across the Atlantic, in the Netherlands, I was waiting with the telescope to see what I could capture from the launch. I never had such a favorable opportunity before to photograph an orbiting object so shortly after launch. The timing has to be exactly right and in most cases a satellite is still in a very low Earth orbit when it reaches Europe for the first time after launching from the Cape. This narrows the time window – usually at twilight – when the sun is still capable of illuminating the object. However, the Falcon 9  CRS-3 launch in April 2014 was an amazing sight and was, thanks to the favorable elevation, well-photographed in high resolution. I was lucky that the Dragon was sent quickly after launch into a relatively high orbit, making illumination time sufficiently long to have a good chance to observe Dragon. As expected, the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon were close together when passing in the sky and there were two other items from the launch (solar panel covers) bracketing the pair. By switching the telescope rapidly between the two brightest objects, I was able to obtain detailed images of the capsule and the upper stage with a clearly visible Merlin rocket engine nozzle.

                         Another image of the
Falcon 9 upper stage with Merlin engine from the CRS-3 launch taken on April 18, 2014. Taken as always through a 10 inch telescope                                                                                                     
Below:  Image of the Falcon 9 second stage that deployed the Starlink L6 satellites, captured shortly after launch in the first orbit passing over Europe
                              In order to get a proper exposure setting for the deployed satellites, the second stage is heavily overexposed, but the engine nozzle is visible well

Japanese H2A rockets

H2A rockets of Mitsubishi Heavy Industrie are used by Japan for launches into Earth orbit but also for planetary missions. Throughout the years I have captured several H2A orbital stages with the telescope and I have found them to always be grateful objects. Even at the 600+ altitudes were they mostly orbit, the images showed almost every time some visible shape and even sometimes smaller details. Among these smaller details is the rocket engine. The following image, taken on june 26, 2014 is one of the best I obtained of this type of rocket. At a range of 622 km, we can clearly recognize the conical top, some dark structures, the spherical bottom and the rocket engine. This H2A upper stage brought the ALOS-2 satellite into orbit.

IGS-5 H2A Rocket Upper Stage

On May 4, 2010, I took images of the spent H2A rocket orbital stage for the Japanese IGS-5 satellite from a range of 604,7 kilometers while it was passing 602,9 kilometers above the ground (corresponding to a 85 degrees ENE pass). The result shown below is a stack of the best frames from this session. The relatively high altitudes of most of the H2A rockets make it possible to obtain sufficient frames to combine for an improved image quality. We can clearly recognize the thicker upper part of the rocket and the thinner engine part below. Images taken with 10 inch telescope and camcorder.

Soyuz Rocket Stage of Progress

The image below shows a telescopic capture of the third (upper stage) of the Progress M-13M launch taken on October 31, 2011 from a range of 211 kilometers while it was passing at 172 kilometers above the ground. The comparison image to the right is an on-board cam image from the Progress MS-13 launch on December 6, 2019. Note the visible tinner end at the upper side in the telescopic image which could be the booster engine.

Rocket Upper Stage of Egyptsat 2

On April 16, 2014 the spy satellite Egyptsat 2 lifted up on a Soyuz-U rocket from Baikonur. On June 24, I captured images of the Soyuz third (upper) stage in orbit after I observed it visually several times. The distance at the time of imaging was 729 kilometers while its altitude was 688 kilometers above the ground. The range of over 700 kilometers is a challenging distance for an object the size of an upper stage. The upper stage was tumbling, see the observations on the page Tumbling Launch Debris in Orbit. The images below are selected frames from moments during the tumbling motion were the rocket's long side was visible. Remarkable in all 3 frames is the visible dark separation causing an apparent 'lob' on the left end of the rocket which is probably the engine.