Vandenberg Minuteman III Launch Observed

Jake Rees (
Sat, 13 Nov 1999 04:15:59 -0800

The Minuteman III launched at 12:20 AM PST Nov. 13.  I had set up a CCD
camera with telephoto lens on a tripod in my patio.  I knew exactly where to
aim from a previous Vandenberg Minuteman III launch observation.  This is
the first one I've captured with the CCD camera.  I fed the video into a VCR
in the living room with WWV time signal station feeding in for the audio.
Starting the recording at 11:59 PM using a T-120 using the SLP speed would
record the whole 6 hour window if necessary.

I watched outside with binoculars for about 10 min. starting at midnight at
the beginning of the launch window.  Then went inside and monitored the
video on the TV.  When the first hint of it was seen I ran to the patio and
watched with binoculars.  My attention was split between binocular watching
and glancing at the small monitior set up for the CCD making sure it was in
frame.  I had to pan the camera twice to keep it in frame.

I've seen this type launch before.  Basically, it is a fairly bright orange
elongated point of light, I guess about as bright as Jupiter (maybe a little
less).  Before, I've noticed orange "sparks" behind the main point of light.
This would be the jettisoned first stage tumbling but still emitting flame.
This time though, I didn't notice this with the binoculars, being distracted
with my CCD duties.  It was nothing even remotely like the spectacular Oct.
2, 1999 twilight Minuteman II launch.  Firstly, with tonight's launch, there
was no backlighting of sunlight and secondly the launch trajectory wasn't as

I'm assuming it was launched at 12:20:00 AM (08:21 UTC).  My CCD viewpoint
does not see the absolute horizon.  The missile must clear the roof of a two
story apartment building a half block away before an image can be caught by
the camera.  The CCD video shows the bright point of light coming in between
limbs of a deodara tree a block away first visible at 12:20:13 AM.  What I
found especially interesting in reviewing the tape is the imaging of what
seemed to be the jettisoned first stage "sparking" and tumbling behind the
leading point of light which was the exhaust of the main portion of the
missile.  It trailed behind first being imaged at 12:20:19 and could be seen
with estimated .25 sec. glows ("sparks") every two seconds.  So, obviously
it was tumbling.  But, surprising to me, it continued to climb farther above
the horizon until about 12:20:55 or so when it seemed to peak.  So, it
appears that this jettisoned stage continued to climb even though it was
tumbling.  It just seems interesting because I thought that spent stages
almost immediately started dropping after being jettisoned.  I can only
guess that because of the terrific velocity of the missile, the momentum
continued to carry the first stage higher in altitude for 35-45 sec. after
jettison.  Maybe someone more expert might confirm this conjecture or
explain what happens.  The CCD recording clearly shows a staging event at
about 12:21:04 when there is a momentary brightening of the point of light.
Following this, for perhaps 10 sec. there is a very dim smoke trail visible
which I also noticed with the binoculars.  At about 12:22:04 there is
another brightening and then the point of light disappears two seconds

My location is only about 130 air miles from Vandenberg.  Comparing to the
Oct. 2, 1999 Minuteman II spectacular evening twilight launch, that evening
twilight effect makes a world of difference, for sure!

--  Jake Rees
     Burbank, California

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