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Awesome Photo of Rocket Passing Moon

I have a lurking suspicion that — if I had attempted this feat — I would have been in the wrong location on the wrong day looking in the wrong direction.

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I fear I am numerically challenged. Just the other day, for example, while writing my Si? No Thanks! GaN? Yes Please! blog, I wanted to work out how many minutes there were between 6:08 p.m. and 10:09 p.m. Unfortunately, my mind was wandering, as is its wont, and I distractedly wrote down “m = (60 x 4) + 8 + 9” (well, I actually wrote “m = (60 x 4) + 17,” but I wanted you to see where I came up with this). Not surprisingly, things quickly went south from that point onwards and it took me some time to get back on track. Of course, we need to subtract the 8, so my equation should have been “m = (60 x 4) – 8 + 9” (I hang my head in shame). The reason I mention this here is that my chum Jay Dowling just sent me a link to an amazing article on Science Alert: Incredible Photo Shows a Rocket Pass in Front of The Moon. Here’s How It Was Captured. This article tells the tale of 33-year-old Steve Rice who decided he wanted to take photos and a video of a rocket flying across the face of the moon. As we see in the aforementioned article and in this video, sagacious Steve succeeded splendidly.  
Like many things, Steve’s task sounds easy if you wave your arms around furiously and talk quickly. Indeed, the basic premise is simple enough, it’s in the execution that problems arise. As a starting point, you wait for someone like NASA to announce that they are planning to launch a rocket on a night of a full moon. Such an occurrence was scheduled a little over a week ago as I pen these words when the Northrop Grumman robotic resupply spacecraft Cygnus NG-14 took off from the Wallops Flight Facility on its way to the International Space Station (ISS). Knowing the exact time the launch is supposed to occur, along with the projectile’s precisely predicted path, your next step is to calculate where you need to be in order for the rocket to pass between you and the moon. If you are lucky, this point will be located somewhere on terra firma and not 10 miles out to sea, for example. Furthermore, if on land, hopefully you won’t find yourself in the middle of a swamp, or in the center of a field occupied by a marauding mob of enraged emus, or at the boundary between Los Diablos and Shamrock territory (mayhap I’ve been watching too many Hill Street Blues reruns). All you have to do now is drive across the country, establish yourself at your precisely calculated coordinates, set up your camera, and hope the launch takes place as planned because even a few seconds delay can translate to your being in the wrong field at the right time (or vice versa). I really cannot do this justice. You need to read the Science Alert article to fully wrap your brain around all that is involved here. Suffice it to say that, based on my pitiful attempt to perform a trivial calculation as discussed at the start of this column, I’m reasonably confident that — had I attempted this feat — I’d have been in the wrong location on the wrong day looking in the wrong direction (and that’s if I was lucky). How about you? Are you as impressed with Steve’s feat as me?

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David Ashton

I’m with you Max. Advancing age and decrepitude have considerably increased the number of silly mistakes I make in simple calculations. I go to a site called Brillant.org every day and try and do the problem of the day – maths, physics, chemistry stuff. I kid myself it keeps my mind sharp, but in fact most of the time it shows me how blunt it is…. 🙁

In the scheme of things, lining up the moon and a rocket’s trajectory is probably not a biggie in the world of celestial mechanics, but there are still a number of imponderables I am still pondering. What happens if the rocket’s course changes between takeoff and getting to the same visual elevation as the moon? And if you calculate the moon’s azimuth and elevation at the time of takeoff, would it have moved by the time the rocket crosses that? So yes, I am equally impressed.

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