Space and astronomy news and information for the American Southwest. Coverage includes Vandenberg AFB rocket and missile launches.

Atlas Launch Visibility

by Brian Webb

2014 March 28

An Atlas V rocket carrying the DMSP F-19 military weather satellite is scheduled for launch from Vandenberg AFB on the morning of April 3. Plans call for the Atlas to lift off from Space Launch Complex 3 (SLC-3) at south Vandenberg at 07:46 PDT, the start of a 10-minute launch window. However, issues such as technical problems, bad weather, or ships or aircraft straying into the range can cause the launch to happen at any time during the window or to be rescheduled for another day.

At liftoff, the Atlas will rise vertically from SLC-3 for several seconds before it slowly begins to pitch over and head southward. The vehicle will briefly produce a contrail as it passes through a zone that extends roughly from 33,000 to 38,000 feet above sea level.

The Atlas V rocket variant for slated for launch on Thursday uses liquid propellant engines, but no strap-on solid rocket motors. Unlike solid motors, which produce a brilliant flame, liquid propellant engines produce a much fainter flame. At launch time, the Sun will be above the horizon, creating a bright sky background. The rocket's use of liquid propellants and the bright sky will greatly diminish the visibility of the launch.

Under the best of circumstances, the Atlas V will probably only be visible for the first few minutes of flight from liftoff to first stage cutoff and stage 1/2 separation.

Under good conditions, observers within seven miles of the launch pad should enjoy a nice display. For launch watchers in outlying areas the display will be subdued.

Under very good conditions, the first stage flame may be visible to the naked eye as far away as Ventura, Pismo Beach, and Taft. The short contrail from the first stage may be visible to the unaided eye as far away as Pasadena, King City, and Bakersfield.

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