For more than a decade, Shamil Zhumatov has photographed spacecraft taking off from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome. After dozens of launches, he says the challenge is to find new and better ways of taking pictures.
The Soyuz spacecraft which blasted off on July 28 carried NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, Russia’s Sergey Ryazanskiy, and Italy’s Paolo Nespoli to the International Space Station.
“Most launches lately have taken place in during the daytime, and this one was special, happening on the edge of day and night, about 20 minutes after sunset,” Shamil said.
It was already dark on the ground, but the upper layers of the atmosphere were still lit by sun, which created an unusual contrast — and additional technical difficulties.
“I had to change my camera settings from night-time to daylight ones quickly as I shifted from shooting the launch pad to the flying spacecraft,” Shamil says.
Photographers don’t have a choice of location at Baikonur — everyone shoots from the same position, about 1 km (mile) from the launch pad. Only remotely controlled cameras can shoot from closer distances — and Shamil’s routinely gets damaged by rocks which fly in all directions during blast-off.
After the rocket lifts off, photographers keep tracking it until it disappears from sight. A few minutes into the flight, the rocket sheds its four boosters as they exhaust their liquid fuel and can no longer propel the craft.
In daytime, they can be only seen as four tiny dots.
But on July 28, because the unusual lighting made Soyuz’s condensation trail — clouds formed by engine exhaust — very bright, it was easy to see the cross-shaped pattern formed by the discarded boosters.
“I snapped the picture after the boosters separated,” Shamil says. “From the earth, it looks like a rather slow process.”
Soyuz’s contrail and further stage separations that day could be seen for hundreds of kilometers and sparked rumors and speculation on social media, especially among UFO enthusiasts.
Shamil says he cannot remember exactly how many launches he has photographed, but reckons he has seen at least 50 crews off from Baikonur or met them as they returned to earth.