Antares Rocket Launch from Wallops Island, VA,
sending the Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft to the ISS
Monday Morning, May 21, 2018
After being scrubbed due to poor weather on May 20, 2018, an Antares rocket propelling Orbital ATK's Cygnus OA-9 cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) was launched on Monday, May 21, 2018, at 4:44 am EDT (the end of a 5-minute window that opened at 4:39 am). However, it was generally cloudy at my observing location, the street in front of my Maple Shade, NJ, home about 150 miles north of the Wallops Island, VA, launch site.
Leading up to liftoff, I was watching the launch pad on NASA TV (I was having trouble with the video on the new Wallops launch status page). Based on accurate current time, it appeared the on-screen countdown clock was a minute slow, and since it would take a minute or two for the rocket to appear from my distance, I stepped outside at 4:44 am, accurate local time. Unfortunately, it was generally cloudy and I saw nothing.
The previous Antares launch from Wallops on November 12, 2017, was not visible from this area due to clouds. The launch before that on October 17, 2016, was visible in a dark evening sky. I watched it from Borton Landing Rd in Moorestown, NJ. The first stage rocket exhaust was distinctly reddish in color (its movement separated it from the red warning lights on antennae at the nearby Lockheed-Martin complex). After a lull, the second stage rocket exhaust appeared; it was white in color. Both stages showed plumes with 16x70 binoculars, but the second looked particularly impressive.
Back to the morning of May 21, 2018. I was ready to give up and head back inside, when suddenly, a bright white cloud appeared in the southeast, about 10° altitude. It was around 2 to 3° in extent (somewhat like this launch photo at Spaceweather.com), and with 15x56 binoculars, showed some streaks along the rocket's expected path (largely horizontal at this point). The bright area only lasted about 10 to 15 seconds, and during this brief time, a bright white dot appeared in the plume and fell behind to the right. The white color would certainly indicate it was the second stage, so I suspect that based on the time, I saw the second stage igniting after the lull from the first stage — and luckily, it was at a small break in the clouds. Not as impressive as the entire ascent would have been, but at least I saw something.
On Sunday night, May 20-21, leading up to Monday morning's launch, there were five (5) visible passes of the ISS, the destination of the Cygnus spacecraft, if weather permitted. I saw the first one that peaked at 9:46 pm EDT (high and bright). The second that peaked at 11:23 pm was clouded out. I saw the third that peaked at 1:00 am through thin clouds, skipped the fourth that peaked at 2:38 am, then finally, saw the fifth pass that peaked at 4:15 am, about half an hour before the Antares launch. The three passes observed were seen with unaided eyes. This week, we were in a period when the orientation of the earth and the ISS's orbit allowed multiple sightings in a given night. See this Bob King article at Sky & Telescope online.
Here are a couple of Wallops Island links...
Wallops Home Page
Wallops Launch Status Page
Update: On June 6, 2018, Orbital ATK was acquired by Northrop Grumman. On July 13, the HaloSat cube-sat carried to the International Space Station by the Cygnus OA-9 was released into orbit on a mission to look for the missing half of the universe's baryonic matter. On July 10, Cygnus performed a successful re-boost of the ISS's orbit, and on July 15, the Cygnus cargo craft departed the ISS.
SJAstro Home Page.
Last Update: Wednesday, July 25, 2018 at 08:46 PM Eastern Time