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It’s not easy filming a rocket launch. Here’s how it’s done

With NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine recently asking folks to watch next week’s historic SpaceX launch from home instead of showing up at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, more people than ever will be hitting NASA’s livestream of the much-anticipated mission.

While we’ve become accustomed to watching dramatic footage of rocket launches over the years, those opening minutes showing the rocket blasting toward space at breakneck speed require some pretty powerful technology to achieve those awesome shots.

The setup includes high-definition video and film cameras that use an array of focal lengths for different kinds of shots. And here’s the most important part — the cameras operate from Kineto Tracking Mounts placed around the launch site that automatically follow the rocket, capturing jitter-free footage as it soars toward space. The special mount (below) was initially developed by the military to track aircraft and missiles.

A Kineto Tracking Mount used at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA/Wikimedia

This brilliant video (below) by YouTuber Primal Space offers a clear explanation of the filming process. For a bit of perspective, the video starts off by showing the kind of setup you’d need if you wanted to get the same type of footage using a regular DSLR camera. Here’s a tip — don’t bother. First, you’ll have to build yourself a 10,000mm lens to ensure the rocket fills the frame as it heads toward the heavens. And at that kind of focal length, the picture will be shaking around to such an extent that anyone watching will think an earthquake had kicked off. So, best leave it to the professionals. With their professional equipment.

How does SpaceX get these amazing camera shots?

Next week’s groundbreaking launch sees astronauts — in this case Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — taking their place for the first time inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule ahead of a rendezvous with the International Space Station some 250 miles above Earth. It’ll also be the first astronaut launch from American soil since 2011, when the Space Shuttle program ended.

Here’s how you can watch it — captured by all that high-tech equipment — on Wednesday, May 27.

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Trevor Mogg
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