Okay, this is pretty amazing. Time-lapse photography in its own right can be fantastic, but when you simultaneously also capture a rocket launch (and landing!) entirely by accident? Well, that’s a shot in a million.
That’s entirely what happened to photographer Zach Grether, 37, based out of Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Early in the morning of May 6, 2016, he headed out to his favorite spot in southern South Carolina, Hunting Island, to capture time-lapse photography of the Milky Way. The area is notable for its trees part-submerged in water, which look awesome silhouetted against the night sky.
But that wasn’t the only thing Grether captured that night. Because, unknown to him, that was the same night SpaceX was launching a Japanese communications satellite from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and it was also the night the company completed its first rocket landing on a floating platform at night.
“At around 1:10am I set up by a particular tree that I was interested in and started capturing data for an ISO invariance test, unbeknownst to the countdown happening 250 miles to the south,” Grether said in a blog post. “As the camera slowly ticked down to its final few frames, I saw out of the corner of my eye what looked like a firework going off in the distance.”
What he captured was the moment the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, separated from the second stage, performed the landing. His incredible sequence of images shows the second stage continuing to its higher orbit, the main streak of light in the image.
But the most impressive thing is between the branches of the trees. That’s the first stage performing its re-entry burn as it made its way through the upper atmosphere just prior to landing, with its reflection also visible in the water.
Above, the image before it had gone through post-processing. Used with permission via Zach Grether
Grether told IFLScience the shot was “completely luck,” adding: “I thought someone was either playing with a drone or firing off a roman candle a couple hundred yards down the beach when I saw what was originally the launch.
"When I saw it continue to move through the sky, but without the original brightness, I decided to just keep shooting and see what would happen. I didn't know the re-entry burn even happened until I saw it in the images after the fact.”
The resulting image, and a gif showing the movement of the rocket, was so impressive that SpaceX posted it on their own Twitter page. Although we’ve seen long-exposure images of SpaceX’s rocket launches and attempted landings before, this image is truly astounding.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) 18 May 2016
Grether added that he’s considering trying this again for future launches, although he noted that he might “just live with the glory of it happening right the first time.”
Who could blame him.