Rocket launch blows away the sky

By Phil Plait | February 17, 2010 3:00 pm

Perched on top of an Atlas V rocket, on February 11 the Solar Dynamics Observatory launched into space. About a minute after leaving the Earth, the rocket did two things: it passed the speed of sound, and screamed past a sundog, a rainbow-colored optical effect in the sky caused by ice crystals.

And when it did, well, it was incredible. What’s below is just about the coolest video I have ever seen. And I mean that seriously. Click the "720" button and pay close attention at the 1:50 mark. You won’t miss it, the crowd in the audio will alert you…

Wow! I’m quite sure the footage shown here is legit and not a hoax. Several people I know said they saw the same thing, and there are photos of it as well. Those ripples were caused by the shockwave of the rocket going through the cloud, which quickly dispersed. Since the cloud had ice crystals in it, the sundog got literally blown away.

I love the digital revolution. There are so many video cameras out there that stuff no one would’ve believed before are becoming more and more common. Bright meteor fireballs, rocket launches like this, clear footage of flying saucers… oh, wait.

Anyway, awesome. If you ever get a chance to watch a rocket launch, take it. You never know what you might see!

Tip o’ the nosecone to jhumbug on Twitter.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Skepticism

Comments (73)

  1. Seamyst

    So cool!

    And as an aside, I love the Star Wars music at the beginning. 😉

  2. Hamish

    Incredible, I think I could watch that another 20 times!

    And as an aside, I love the Beatles at the end 😀


    Hey, Phil, where have you been? That video of SDO Destroys A Sundog was featured on last Thursday, February 11, 2010. Also, on the same day, Nancy Atkinson of Universe Today mentioned the observed phenomenon in her article:
    The Solar Dynamics Observatory Soars to Study the Sun.

  4. I don’t know if that was actually a supersonic shock wave, or just the (really loud) acoustic waves from the engines. I’m just basing this on Schlieren photos of shock waves and I know they travel in a cone, so a cone crossing a plane (the clouds) should look like a single expanding circle. Actually, it would be two circles from the nose and tail cones. This one looked more like it was going into warp…

    Edit: I just watched the official NASA video and the vehicle went Mach at exactly 1:20 from ignition. In this video, the waves happen a good four seconds before that. I also noted that they continued to ripple for several seconds after passage.

    – Jack

  5. G

    That’s beautiful.

  6. Now that’s some heavy sh*t!

  7. Yeah, I was surprised when a few people thought it looked fake. So glad I saw it in person!!!

  8. Wow. It’s easy to forget that optical effects like sundogs & halos are caused by a physical…medium? I don’t think that’s the right word. In any case, something that can be disturbed like this.

    Does anyone mind if I say “Wow” again?


  9. sean

    Real science is so much better than sci-fi!

  10. bigjohn756

    I am not certain that I saw the sun dog, but, the shock wave was clear as a bell.

  11. Chip

    Sometimes I think that the word “cool” can be over used but for sure it’s appropriate here. Cool indeed!

  12. AJ

    That’s… that looks weird. Unreal, even. Thus proving that…

  13. Eric TF Bat

    Oh yeah, that. Bug in the Matrix. Sky rendering software is still on version 4.31, and it gets an overflow if you go too fast with a vertical trajectory. They’re installing the new 5.1 drivers this week, so it shouldn’t happen again.

  14. Kevin F.
  15. Meg

    I’m SO glad that was caught on video. Call me selfish, but I was all about being there, and I figured I’d find photos and videos online after the fact. I was watching from the Saturn V center with my sons, and we thought the clouds, sun dog and rocket launch were a great show even before they interacted. So cool!

  16. IVAN3MAN, I knew it was mentioned but this is the first I’ve seen the video. Spaceweather doesn’t have an actual RSS feed that I can find, so I never subscribed to it. They do have some sort of feed, so I’m trying that now.

  17. Hmmm…maybe the sound waves propagated faster through the suspended ice crystals than the nearby air. Slightly higher density means the speed of sound increases. I dunnno :)

    Whatever the cause, awesome video!

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    That. Was. M-A-G-N-I-F-I-C-E-N-T! 😀

    I saw the launch live on NASA TV (actually via the link the BA had here :

    .. & they showed many replays of it immediately afterwards which I watched as well but that’s the first time I’ve seen the “sundog and somic boom” footage.

    Superluminous ie. beyond just brilliant. :-)

    PS. Thinking Beatles someone should do a Utube version or something with that sundog vs SDO-Atlas V footage set to soemthing like these altered lyrics of ‘Here Comes the Sun’ :

    “There goes the Sun little darling!
    There’s goes the Sun!
    Its sundog go-ooo-ooo-ne!

    Little Darling, the SDO is slowly launching
    Little darling, the Sun dogs shining in the sky
    Soon it will be
    Sonic blasted

    Its alright!

    etc .. :-)

    – StevoR a.k.a. ‘Plutonium being from Pluto’, a.k.a. ‘Messier Tidy Upper.’

  19. PJE

    I just sent an email to my friends entitled “WTF was that??”


    Thanks, Phil

  20. That is just so awesome! And the irony of SDO’s booster blasting a sundog is just… awesome!

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    I asked this question before on the earlier BA blog thread but a very lo-oong way down the thread immediately after the launch & got no answers so I thought I’d ask again here if I may :

    52. Plutonium being from Pluto (aka me) Says:
    February 11th, 2010 at 9:08 am

    Launched! The SDO is flying high & has been launched sucessfully – all nominal so far. Still attached to the Centaur Atlas V last I saw.

    Is it just me or is anyone else wondering about why they seem to jettison the covers / shroud (right term?) at the time they do – seemingly so early and then spend so long with the Solar Dynamic Observatory exposed to open air / space on top of the rocket unprotected?

    Over fifteen minutes into elapsed times & NADSA TV showing lots of replays incl. one from a “Patrick DOMASS” camera which has me :

    a) laughing (NB. Very early morning /late night for me so I was v.tired & silly.)
    b) wondering what the blazes it stands for! &
    c) wondering if NASA realise what that acronymn sounds like?

    … Great to see though! …

    (NB. Edited version for brevity / accuracy.)


    Does anyone know & care to enlighten us all with answers to those questions, please?

    Also, is there an Solar Dynamics Observatory facebook page like there is for WISE? If not, why not?! 😉

  22. Pi-needles

    There goes the Solar Dynamics Observatory barely off the ground and *already* blowing away our solar illusions – what a space probe! 8)

    No Mark (23) that’s not ironic – that’s apt! 😉


    The shock wave looks nothing like that. I decided that it must be a fake. But if other cameras recorded it, and it’s definitely real …gotta be engine noise!

    The ripples clearly are travelling at far, far faster than the speed of sound. (Looks like a crude special-effect made by non-physicists!) But if the engine is constantly sending out spherical ripples, then a “bullseye” could appear below the vehicle where these expanding spheres coming down from above are intersecting the relatively thin flat cloud layer.

    And the bullseye circles, being “intersection points,” would travel much faster than the slowly expanding spheres which created them.

    Oddity: why didn’t the ripples appear before the vehicle arrived at the cloud layer, or while it was at the same altitude? Perhaps the engine tends to direct much low-freq sound downwards? If so, then the ripples could only show up after the vehicle was far higher than the clouds.

  24. bill beaty (@6): I wondered if it really were the shock wave, or just the expanding air behind the shock wave. I’m still not completely convinced one way or another. But while those are moving out very rapidly, I don’t know how fast. If anyone wants to measure their speed (you might be able to estimate using the rocket’s size as a benchmark) feel free.

  25. ian

    Very cool.

    Also, invest in a better, smoother tripod.

  26. cmflyer

    I would go with the interaction of pressure waves and water vapor, similar to the condensation cones made by supersonic jets.

  27. 26. bill beaty Says: “Oddity: why didn’t the ripples appear before the vehicle arrived at the cloud layer, or while it was at the same altitude? Perhaps the engine tends to direct much low-freq sound downwards? If so, then the ripples could only show up after the vehicle was far higher than the clouds.”

    As I said in the footnote of my earlier post (#5), the vehicle was right on the verge of going Mach (which happened about four seconds after it passed through the clouds). That means, by definition, it was outrunning its engine noise being transmitted through the air so the acoustic waves would all get there after it had passed. It also explains why the ripples continued for some time (with diminishing intensity) after it passed.

    – Jack

  28. Sean

    Did I ever tell you that my first conscious memory is of a televised “moon shot” launch? This video confirms what I suspected all along: the Universe will surprise us with every turn. All we have to do is pay attention. Awesome.

  29. DaveS

    As for it not looking like a Schlieren photo, remember those are made normal to the flow. A shock wave is a 3-d cone emanating from the nose (and sometimes tail, and other places) of the supersonic object. Seen from behind, it would look like a circle.

    (BTW, I happen to have a long-unused degree in Aero-E, and I’ve seen supersonic shockwave Schlieren lines in person. :-)

    I wonder how blunt the nose of an Atlas is? A blunt object going supersonic makes a bow shock that looks and acts decidedly different than a pointed-nose shock wave. It’s one of the reasons for the Shuttle reentry double bang.

    I don’t really think sound waves could do that effect. But perhaps a very, very hot rocket exhaust blowing through an ice cloud would have some sort of wide-ranging effect, starting behind the booster.

  30. Peter B

    Messier Tidy Upper @ #24 asked: “Is it just me or is anyone else wondering about why they seem to jettison the covers / shroud (right term?) at the time they do – seemingly so early and then spend so long with the Solar Dynamic Observatory exposed to open air / space on top of the rocket unprotected?”

    At what point after launch was it jettisoned? It doesn’t take more than a few minutes for air pressure to drop to 1% of sea level pressure. Yes, it exposes the spacecraft to open air, but it also lightens the rocket at the important end, making the launch more efficient.

  31. I’ll note that after I wrote this up I went outside to play ball with Canis Minor. What did I see? Yup. A sundog. Awesome.

  32. @ Phil Plait …I don’t know how fast

    If the vehicle’s at ~mach-1, then any visible shocks should appear to have the same velocity as the vehicle, no? But because the cloud-layer’s ripples are tilted w/respect to our viewpoint, any shocks should appear slower. Yet they obviously outrace the vehicle.

    Hey, this is analogous to a nova’s shock lighting up a dust cloud between Earth and the nova. It produces a circle which expands at far faster than c. But it’s not a light wave, it’s an expanding “locus of intersection” of the spherical shock front with the approximately planar dust cloud.

    PS Here’s a sundog which moves at the speed of light (i.e. at the speed of propagating e-fields inside a thunderhead)

  33. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ Peter B. :

    At what point after launch was it jettisoned? It doesn’t take more than a few minutes for air pressure to drop to 1% of sea level pressure. Yes, it exposes the spacecraft to open air, but it also lightens the rocket at the important end, making the launch more efficient.

    It was a few minutes into the flight – not sure exactly when. Sky around the rocket was still very blue but once they’d shifted into “animation mode” maybe? Does anyone remember or know? I wouldn’t have thought jettisoning the covers would save all that much weight & would have exposed it to some wind resistence etc .. but I guess they know what they’re doing.

    Thanks. :-)

  34. This is absolutely one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time.

  35. Doug G.

    I’d like to second the idea that the rings were cause by acoustic waves, not by supersonic shock. I’ve seen this sort of effect in footage from other launches just after launch, both in IMAX films and in rocketcam footage shooting back along the exhaust trail.

    As far as the assertion that “The ripples clearly are travelling at far, far faster than the speed of sound.”, I don’t think that’s true. The Atlas is said to be nearing the speed of sound itself at the moment the ripples appear. It looks to my eye that the ripples are propagating at a rate comparable to the rate at which the Atlas is moving relative to the cloud deck, which is exactly what we’d expect if the ship was near Mach 1.

    Not only can you see the acoustic ripples, but you can hear them too – in that crackling staccato sound the rocket makes, each impulse you hear is probably causing one of those ringlets. I’d wager that with a rocket engine whose characteristic sound was ‘whiter’ (i.e. more even) wouldn’t generate such visible waves in a similar situation.

  36. I might be late to this conversation, but I was at KSC HQ due south of the pad watching the launch. I remember seeing the cloud cover and thinking we might see something cool when it passed through them but did not see the ripple wave illustrated here. As the booster reached the high moisture laden cold air a contrail appeared and that was cool. I suppose the videographer and others who saw this were at one of the VIP sites west of the pad. If anyone knows for sure let me know.

  37. I saw the passing through the cloud part and saw it create the shockwave effect but didn’t see the ripple effect. I mean, when I watched it live and all. Fantastic vid. The contrail it create later in flight was pretty spectacular too. Rockets are cool! Are you sure you don’t want to strap one on your back, Phil? 😉

  38. @NASAMan was probably from the Saturn V center. It was definitely visible there.

  39. bouch

    That was wicked f’ing pissah!

  40. Peter B

    I had a quick look at the footage of the Apollo 11 launch, and there’s a similar effect about 40-50 seconds after launch when the rocket passes through thin cloud. You can also see the shadow the rocket casts on the rest of the cloud as it climbs away.

  41. ND

    If you look closely there is a condensation cone forming just before the waves. At least I think it’s a cond cone, the reflection and brightness off of the rocket does change during ascent.

  42. Yes, I was right in front of the Apollo/Saturn V center. Sorry for the shakes. I have an excellent tripod but I was letting a friend use it for his giant glass zoom lens. I was using a monopod while trying to watch the rocket instead of the viewfinder. It was my first rocket launch and I didn’t want to miss it.

    I made a new video zoomed in and slowed down to 25% so you can see the vapor cone more clearly. It is definitely there.

  43. Romeo

    I was there as well as part of the SDO Mission. It was as real as it gets (below is my video and you can see it as well).

    Everything was just perfect that day for a sundog and for visible shockwaves.

    Go SDO – HMI, AIA & EVE!

  44. Chip

    I was kind of wishing they had a tripod but once the launch started it was very cool.

    (Phil – this is a different “Chip” from the previous poster above. Yes redundant since I am also saying this is cool, but I gotta be me.) 😉

  45. Josh R.

    Hey guys! I know I’m way late commenting here (sorry! silly Olympics screwing up my web surfing schedule…), but just wanted to toss my vote behind the “acoustic pressure waves” hypothesis too based on my experience watching several Shuttle RSRM static tests up at ATK Promontory (one of the few perks of living in Utah!).

    While it’s hard to capture on non-HD video, if you ever get the treat of seeing a static motor test up close & personal, these acoustic shock waves can easily be seen propagating through the exhaust plume/dust cloud as the motor is firing. Think of it as a whole bunch of massive explosive shock waves packed in sequence. Ever seen the pressure wave from a high-energy explosion? Now imagine that happening several times a second and seeing every one of those pressure waves propagate out through the dust & debris kicked up behind the motor. It’s a pretty spectacular sight to see on the ground — to see it radially in a cirrus cloud a few miles up? That’s a special kind of awesomeness right there!

  46. MadScientist

    Sun dogs are awesome; once I saw an incredibly brilliant one – it was as if there were a large stainless steel ribbon in the sky (and a gold one and an orange one); the arc was far more impressive than the three overlapping images of the sun near the horizon. (The other set of arcs and suns were not visible due to low clouds.)

  47. Cate

    LOVE the Star Wars music at the beginning. So intense…haha

  48. RBH

    Man, envies. I spent 2.5 years at the Cape working Polaris in the early 60s and saw a number of launches of various vehicles that produced interesting visual/physical atmospheric effects, but never saw this one before.

  49. both real science and science fiction, which inspires much scientific research, are much better than the nonsense put out by religions.. without science we wouldn’t have purified water, electricity, refrigerated food, modern medicine, telecommunications, engines, chemicals, rubber, plastic, or even metals.. it would be far easier to give up religion than science, for in so doing we would NOT alter “God” or the creator deity at all, just our own lives (just worship at home if you feel the need).. but to give up all that science has given us would reduce our lifespans back to about 25-30 years, (and make them far tougher, and disease-ridden) which was the expectation around 1900, only a century ago..

    .. the Jman ..

  50. Cae

    Jack Haggerty-

    You are a geek, But I mean that in the good way! LOL
    I am very impressed with the amount of thought you put into your analysis even if I do not understand it.

    I just came to this site for the promise of pretty pictures.

  51. Shayne

    I live here at the Cape and the effect was real and pretty awesome to see. You never know what you will see with these rockets. They launched one a few months ago at sunset and the smoke trail took on all the colors of the rainbow. it was very impressive!

  52. Messier Tidy Upper

    On reflection that’s a great video indeed – but not quite as good as this one by Michael Interbartolo III & crew that the BA posted about not so long ago last year too :


    Although it comes a cosy second! 😉

  53. phil

    @ Messier Tidy Upper
    no offence, but what on earth makes that montage worth watching? i hope you weren’t comparing soundtracks… did i miss something?

  54. billehh

    So you see the sound waves that hit the clouds O_o
    It’s cool, i gues… Not like seeing space change… but pretty cool i gues…
    The filming sucked tough…

  55. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 64. phil Says:

    @ Messier Tidy Upper- no offence, but what on earth makes that montage worth watching? i hope you weren’t comparing soundtracks… did i miss something?

    Both are beautiful & spectacular launch video’s that I love.

    No offence taken & not comparing soundtracks but sorry & frankly very surprised if you didn’t love that shuttle launch montage .. How could you *not* I wonder? Oh well, guess we’re all different.

  56. Merp

    I like the bird at the beginning that freaks out and flies the other direction from the rocket. Also, air ripples are cool and look like CGI, even though they’re not. Real life, man. Real life…

  57. NASA has a news update on this with a great new twist – they’ve discovered a new form of ice halo. Click on my name for a link to the NASA article. :-)

  58. Steph

    I like the bird in there, probably not planned huh? Amazing footage! Very enjoyable.

  59. Qing

    That is both transverse and longitudinal waves!


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