Photographer Accidentally Captures SpaceX Falcon Heavy Exhaust Plume

Photographer Reuben Wu was at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona last week shooting photos for his gorgeous Lux Noctis project (landscapes at night illuminated by drone-mounted LEDs) when he captured something unexpected: the exhaust plume of SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket that launched during the day.

“I managed to capture the dissipating exhaust plume of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy as it left the Earth’s atmosphere,” Wu tells PetaPixel. “Had no idea it was launching that night so it was a tremendous surprise to see it fly into my shot.”

The Falcon Heavy was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, during the day, so you may be wondering how this exhaust plume sneaked into Wu’s shot at night.

“This was the final burn which took place 6 hours after launch around 7:30 pm (I always wait until dark before I make these pictures),” Wu says. “The second stage had 3 separate burns: the first just after launch (about 8 mins in) then it shut down, coasted for an amount of time, re-lit and burned again for a short while to alter the orbit. Then it shut down and then, six hours later it re-lit a third time for solar orbital insertion.

“I was puzzled by the same thing and had to ask a friend!”

Here’s the same solar orbit insertion burn as seen from the MMT Observatory on Mt. Hopkins, Arizona:

“At first when I clocked the rocket it looked like an usually bright and fast moving satellite (or missile) which had a glowing haze around it as if it were shining through cloud (it was a very clear night), but then the haze rapidly expanded into the final exhaust plume and then dissipated as Starman left the planet’s atmosphere,” Wu says.