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7.2.19 - Florida AA2 Sunrise

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Sometimes you get lucky, and the pursuit of one photo can lead you to another equally amazing and unexpected moment. To that point, I had been standing on the end of the pier at Jetty Park (Cape Canaveral, Florida) since 5am waiting for the launch of NASA's Ascent Abort 2 (AA2) test flight [See AA2 Post here!]. I had a smaller zoom out to take photos of the Coast Guard as they patrolled the south edge of the launch range [See Coast Guard post here!], when suddenly the sun burst from the long, flat horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. The sun was larger and more brilliant than any time I can remember, so it was a perfect good omen to the amazing launch of AA2 that would come shortly thereafter.

While the sunrise and the Coast Guard patrol were an integral part of the AA2 experience, they made the AA2 blog post too long and broke up the sequence of events too much in written form. For that reason, I decided that each component deserved its own post. As you might have guessed from the title and the main photo, this post focuses on the fantastic Florida sunrise.

The dark, quiet night had been slowly waning since we arrived on the Jetty Park Pier at 5am. As the sky filled with the warm hues of twilight, the local wildlife began to emerge from the darkness to take advantage of the dim light.

From my vantage point on the Jetty Park Pier, the protruding nose of Cape Canaveral was compressed into a thin, black band along the horizon where the AA2 Launch vehicle sat quietly on the lit pad of Launch Complex 46. The opposite jetty to the one behind me extended out below the Cape to a lone buoy designating the bounding edge of the shipping channel.

I had temporarily moved my D850 over to the more nimble 28-300mm lens so I could get a few shots that weren't restricted by the long 600mm setup. I clamped the camera to the tripod to gain a little more support in the dim light, and I was happily photographing the glowing landscape, local wildlife, and the Coast Guard vessel patrolling the Southern boundary of the restricted launch zone. I was tracking a weathered gambling boat as it lumbered out to sea, when the sun suddenly split the once muted horizon of the Atlantic Ocean with a fiery crest of brilliant yellow.

I rushed to change back to the 300mm f2.8 + 2x TC + gimbal setup I had prepped for the AA2 launch, but the time it took to switch the camera over and remount the gimbal was enough time for the sun to rise considerably over the undulating ocean.

The vibrance of the sun was inescapable. The the sky vibrated around the sun in rhythmic waves of heat distortion in the atmosphere.

Red Sun Rising - When the sun is just above the horizon, the thin layer of atmosphere that makes our planet livable suddenly becomes evident. Not only does it distort the light of the sun to create the mirage of a mirror image below, but it also scatters the light such the sun appears to have a warm gradient from red to yellow. The particles in the atmosphere tend to scatter blue light (photons with a shorter wavelengths), while the red light (photons with longer wavelengths) pass through. The thicker the atmosphere near the horizon scatters more light making it a darker shade of red, while the thinner atmosphere above scatters fewer photons making the sun appear shades of orange and yellow. This also reduces the total amount of photons reaching your eye, which makes viewing the sun more bearable to the naked eye.

Flocks of birds gathered near the mouth of the port to feast on the fish that were funneled through the narrow band of water. As they cycled between the sky and water, their spindly silhouettes were barely visible across the sky.

The thick, humid atmosphere distorted the sun into a strange, inverted rain drop that seemed to pull its molten form from the unrelenting grasp of the broad Atlantic Ocean (the exact opposite of the physics actually at play between the sun and the ocean).

It was amazingly fortuitous that such an incredible sunrise coincided with NASA's AA2 launch because it meant that I had all the large, heavy gear mostly prepped to photograph it, and a near perfect vantage point from the end of the pier. It was a beautiful distraction from the hours spent waiting for the incredible test launch of Orion's Launch Abort System to begin.

The brilliant sphere of the rising sun compressed in the thick atmosphere, bulging at its center into an exaggerated oblate spheroid, as it seemed to meld into the linear banding of the clouds that still clung to the horizon. As the sun rose higher, less and less light was scattered by the miles of ocean air concentrated along the surface of the Earth, and it soon became too bright to photograph safely. I begrudgingly returned my focus back down from the heavens to the newly awakening terrestrial environment.

A myriad of ocean birds gathered in the golden morning light, and vigorously competed for the morning's meal. Just below the glistening surface of the ocean, schools of fish endeavored to acquire their own meals, even as they dodged the onslaught from above.

A golden hue blanketed the LC-46 pad as the edge of the AA2 test vehicle glistened in the morning light. The launch time of 7am was nearly upon us, so I returned my focus to the launch pad and prepared for AA2 to finally break free of its idyllic surroundings.

© 2019 Shaun C Tarpley

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