“Most rockets can produce a kind of contrail as the combustion of the [fuel] (especially if they are hydrogen+oxygen fueled) will produce a lot of water. But for many rockets there is also a lot of visible smoke. It’s not always visually clear what is smoke, and what is water. When they get very high up, the trail spreads out and is lit by the sun in unusual ways. You see this a lot with the missile tests in California. You could call this a contrail if you wanted, so long as you note it’s a rocket contrail, and so contains smoke.” ~Contrail Science
You can see rocket contrails primarily during morning or evening launches when the sky seems dark yet the rising or setting sun lights up the plume from the rocket exhaust.
There’s nothing quite like catching sight of a rocket contrail. The first time I saw one, I was in Arizona and it was a (very early) morning launch from Vandenberg Airforce Base in Southern California. I called and woke up an astronomy buddy of mine just to find out what the heck I was seeing, I was so excited.
If you are anywhere near a launch site and there is a launch in the morning or in the evening, take a look outside, you might see something interesting!
There are several ways to learn when a rocket will launch. I’ll delve into that in a future post!
*This is a Kid Friendly Activity