Tonight around 11:27 pm, if everything goes well, a colossal "Minotaur V" rocket will lance off a launch pad in Virginia in a geyser of flame. From there it will make a broad swoop along the East Coast, where observers from the Carolinas all the way past Maine will get a chance to watch it spray smoky fire through the night sky.
The rocket, which is carrying a NASA lunar probe called LADEE ("laddie"), will travel low at about 10 to 15 degrees above the horizon. People around the Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Virginia, will obviously have the best views (and aural experience – some blast-offs are so loud that NASA has a sound-suppression system to prevent acoustic energy from damaging shuttle parts). But folks willing to get away from a city's skyline clutter or climb to high places could witness it in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Greensboro, and other far-from-the-coast cities.
Here's a map that Orbital Sciences, the operator of the converted ballistic missile, made to show where it will appear according to where you live:
Orbital has also put together these city-specific viewing maps to catch the Minotaur's ascent. As to why the rocket's trajectory seems to take it on a crash course back to earth, it's just a trick of perspective. Writes NASA:
In the graphic, the trajectory appears to dip back toward Earth as the rocket moves further away from the observer and disappears beyond the horizon. The rocket, of course, is not returning to Earth – it is continuing its ascent, speeding higher and faster toward space. During its flight, Minotaur V will jettison rocket stages that have spent all their fuel. These harmlessly break up in the atmosphere and fall back into the ocean. The fifth stage, along with the LADEE spacecraft, is put into a high earth orbit. Once it separates from the fifth stage, LADEE will then use its own engines to continue on its mission to the Moon.
First, here's where to look from the Empire State Building:
From Battery Park:
The National Mall in Washington, D.C.:
The Newseum in D.C., looking toward the Capitol:
Kitty Hawk, North Carolina:
For those curious about what's on board this rocket, it's a probe called the "Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer" that will orbit the Moon for the next 100 days. Scientists are hoping it will shed light on strange phenomena called "twilight rays" that astronauts have reported seeing over the lunar horizon. The space agency explains more:
Back in the 60s and 70s, Apollo astronauts circling the Moon saw something that still puzzles researchers today. About 10 seconds before lunar sunrise or lunar sunset, pale luminous streamers would pop up over the gray horizon. These “twilight rays” were witnessed by crewmembers of Apollo 8, 10, 15 and 17. Back on Earth, we see twilight rays all the time as shafts of sunlight penetrate evening clouds and haze. The "airless Moon" shouldn’t have such rays, yet the men of Apollo clearly saw them.
One astronaut puzzling over the phantom beams of light made this sketch of what they looked like:
LADEE will search for stuff in the thin lunar atmosphere that might be responsible for these rays – electrified dust, possibly, or humidity and "atoms hopping across the lunar surface," according to the space agency.
If you can't see the launch from where you live, or if the weather turns cloudy, there's always the live NASA webcast starting at 9:30 .m. Lucky New Yorkers will also be able to watch it in Times Square on the massive Toshiba screen near where the ball drops on New Year's Eve.
Top image: An Atlas V rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in January 2013. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Flickr)