Photographer Florian Kuhnt was on a hiking expedition with a friend in northern Norway, with the goal of capturing images of the northern lights. On their final night, just as he was preparing to pack up his camera gear, he spotted a bright light in the sky, which he would later come to realize was a NASA rocket.
Kuhnt, who is pursuing studies in aerospace engineering in Hamburg, Germany, and engages in landscape and outdoor photography as a part-time endeavor, mentioned to Us that he was in Norway’s Lofoten region with the specific aim of photographing the northern lights.
He stated, “The plan was to hike up Ryten to capture the sunset and northern lights over the Kvalvika beach, camp there for one night, hike down the next morning to the beach, and then back to the car. It’s approximately a 5.5-mile round trip.”
The two of them reached the summit in the early evening and began capturing some photographs. However, due to the strong winds, they had to descend slightly from the actual summit as it was impossible to set up a tent there.
“Once we set up the tent, we stayed outside in the cold to await the northern lights. By then, I had already prepared my camera and took some shots of our tent beneath the starry sky,” he explained.
The northern lights are somewhat predictable, with their intensity being influenced by the time of year and still varying from one night to another.
“Almost two hours later, the first glimpse of the northern lights emerged, but they were extremely faint,” he recounted. “So I patiently waited for more while my friend went into the tent to prepare everything for the night.”
Kuhnt mentioned that after an additional hour, he was contending with the cold and wasn’t witnessing a significant increase in the strength of the northern lights. Prepared to conclude his efforts for the night, he began to pack up his equipment and get some rest. However, as he started dismantling his camera and tripod, he noticed something in the sky.
“I suddenly spotted two exceptionally bright, cloud-like objects moving across the sky,” he recounted. “They were moving very swiftly from the south to the north. The entire event lasted approximately five minutes, during which I managed to capture a few shots. Given their rapid movement, I had to raise the ISO to 12,800 to achieve a higher shutter speed and obtain a suitable exposure without motion blur.”
Kuhnt captured numerous photos of the event using his Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens. He admitted that he had never witnessed anything like it before and, initially, wasn’t certain about what he was seeing. However, he recalled having seen images of the SpaceX launch over Los Angeles, which provided a context for understanding the bright objects.
“I looked up the most recent rocket launches and discovered that an Atlas V rocket had just been launched from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, carrying the Landsat 9 Satellite,” he explained. “After some research, I became certain that what we had just witnessed were the deorbit burn of the Centaur Upper Stage and the subsequent fuel blowout. Both of those clouds were illuminated by the Sun, making them visible. The rocket itself is too small to be seen with the naked eye since it orbits at an altitude ranging from about 550 to 680 kilometers. The launch alone would have been extremely exciting to witness, but the fact that it flew through the northern lights was just the icing on the cake.”
NASA’s Landsat 9 mission has recently captured its initial images of Earth as part of its objective to document the alterations in the planet’s topography over a series of years. Kuhnt pointed out that the rocket’s trajectory passed directly over his location in Norway, which can be observed in the trajectory animation video around the 28-second mark.
Despite the remarkable fortune of witnessing a rocket pass through the northern lights, Kuhnt mentioned that he had to terminate their excursion in the middle of the night due to an increase in wind speed and a change in wind direction.
“After the second tent pole broke, we chose to wrap up our outing (or night), and we descended for two hours to reach the car at 3:00 AM. Nevertheless, it was a great trip,” he expressed.