A pretty Soyuz Launch

* Update * – Look at the comments – we don’t think these are flares.  We think the wires services all have this description wrong. What are your thoughts?


 Looking at MSNBC’s The Week in Pictures (as I do every weekend) I found

this shot of the most recent launch – flares shot off just a minute or so before the craft launches.  While these flares are too well choreographed to have any real function besides aesthetics, I wondered if maybe they were used to scare away birds or something, like the NASA article linked to below (I was at a nighttime launch of a Shuttle, and saw no birds – but the daytime Shuttle launch I saw looked a lot like the picture below – a ton of birds in the air around the launch site).

A space shuttle lifts off amid a flurry of birds.Anyway, I couldn’t really find out if the Russian flares were anything but pretty, but I thought both these pictures were cool.  So here they are.







A close encounter of the "bird" kind during last year’s return-to-flight launch of Space Shuttle Discovery prompted NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to look at ways to reduce the possibility of future occurrences.

Source: NASA – It’s a Jungle Out There!


  1. @Chappai .. interesting hypothesis!

  2. Chappai says:

    Those are not flares.

    The Russian launch vehicles are enclosed in a gantry that surrounds the entire launch vehicle. When the rocket is launched, the towers fall back releasing the rocket once it has built up sufficient thrust for launch.

    The lights you are seeing are gantry lights as the towers release the rocket and fall open toward the ground.

  3. Final (I think) note – MSNBC changed the description of their “The week in Pictures”. They drop all mention of flares and instead call the photo a “A long-exposure photo”. Thanks Will, and Alan.

    I have no clue what it is within me that causes me such a sense of satisfaction. I mean, we didn’t solve the JFK murder or anything – but it was fun, and interesting (thanks for that, Paul!) – and educational. Paul had me thinking (I *hate* that!) about a picture I posted because I thought it was “pretty”, even though on some level, I knew the description was wrong.

    And in the end, we caused a changed in Main Stream Media (however small)! How many people can make that claim ❓

  4. 🙂 The Internet is cool, and you’re doing a fine job correcting the AP, MSNBC, NASA, Reuters, etc. Now I just want them to confirm they all have their reports wrong!


  5. @Rob .. “I’ve discounted flares myself“:

    See! The photographer, you and I have it right. The rest of the world’s got it wrong.
    Why is that so hard to accept? 😉

    Some people may call it “being arrogant”
    I call it “being right”!

    (as for how slowly these things move… you can clearly see the rate of descent in the video I supplied: It only takes a couple of minutes. Perfect for a time exposure. I have made many myself, so believe me, this is CLEARLY a time exposure! (why would other, static, items cause a blurr?)). Also, if you discount flares, then what ELSE could it be?
    And for the people who STILL believe in flares: from where are they launched? Upwards? (AT the rocket? Ha!) Or downwards? (from WHERE? OUT of the rocket? HA!) Notice that at the lowest point your flares have a little bright spot on the end of their trail (best seen on the left tower. WHAT is THAT all about? I my theory, that simply means the photographer kept the shutter open while the left tower was already at its horizontal position!)

    I mentioned this picture as being close to the where the ‘flare’ picture was taken: link
    .. just a few steps more the right. Pay attention to that BLUE object in the front!

    I think I’m right about this being the picture location! Just look at the ‘flare’ picture again: here: link. See! SAME blue object in the foreground, now only slightly to the left.

    Isn’t the internet cool? JUST by browsing around I can figure out what happened here, and I can even pinpoint the exact location from where the picture was taken.

  6. 🙂 I’ve discounted flares myself – just not sure, based on how slowly those gantries move, that you could get an exposure like this without the rest of the image having a lot more blurring or overexposure in it.

    Besides, on the left of the photo are four vertical “lines” – of something. But if you look only the red arcs cover those “lines”. If there were a gantry attached to those red lights I would have expected more of these vertical lines to be obscured.

    But I agree, flares around fuel is frighteningly foolish!

  7. @Rob .. There are several towers, but the two that actually fully embrace the rocket AND completely fold down ARE of virtually equal length (see link to pictures, AND watch the video again, but more carefully and completely). The picture is not taken from where the video is taken: In the video you see one tower (on the left) that doesn’t fold back that much (it just ‘leans’)…The picture is taken from exactly the opposite side, so that it has the two equal length towers exactly at its left and right.

    See: last picture here shows the two main towers. In the one to last picture, both those two towers are completely horizontal, that leaning tower (in the video it’s on the left) is used to get the rocket straight up (your ‘flare’ picture was taken from the opposite side): link

    See also: your picture could have been taken from this point, only a few steps to the right, and then a little bit back: link

    Also: link

    Also: the ‘leaning’ tower on the left, the completely lowered tower in front, a similar one on the opposite side, picture taken from the right, opposite from the left leaning tower: link

    Now look at the original picture again! Flares? Come ON! You yourself had it right when you followed your gut instinct and said “too choreographed …” You can’t GET flares to follow such a pattern simultaneously. These are MOVING lights…
    Some more pictures: (follow series on flickr!) link

    And HERE is a really cool one of a SIMILARLY taken picture (not a time exposure, but time lapse) during the day, of a Gemini 10 launch! link

    Same effect: link

    One last note: of course, instead of ELECTRICAL lights on the towers, they could have used staticly placed flares! But the EFFECT you see is from a time exposure of those towers being lowered! As for them being flares, considering that you are not allowed to smoke at gas stations, I’m not sure if using that many flares around a tank with hundreds of tons of highly explosive material, and surrounded by vaporizing liquid oxygen is really such a good idea. But that’s just me.

  8. I couldn’t find a link on Martha Stewart’s site for an email – so I sent the question to Will Femia, who writes the “Clicked” blog.

    He seems to know everyone at MSNBC – and hopefully he can help track down the truth behind this picture.


  9. @Paul. Actually, LESS convinced now. Looking at the video you linked to in comment #4 – I see three Gantries (cranes). All of apparent different heights.

    Assuming that the cranes all had red lights on them, the picture still doesn’t makes sense – the lights in the picture are equal from side to side – and I wouldn’t expect that from different size cranes. Would you?

  10. Okay, I found something that, to me at least, it pretty convincing. Watch this video, but suppose now it’s night … lights are on at the various floors of these towers, and someone is making a ‘time’ exposure from a point perpendicular to these two folding towers. What you would EXPECT to get is exactly what your picture shows. Besides, there is other ‘blurriness’ in your picture that indicates a ‘time’ exposure. This image and video, along with logic (what would the flares be fore? At this time the closest any non-cosmonaut was, was miles away!), to me, is compelling evidence for my hypothesis.. so yes, I think the media got it wrong.. wouldn’t be the first time! Hey.. someone ask Martha! SHE was there!
    Watch this: link

    Rob.. convinced yet? And what do other blog readers think … ?

    (the confusion -even NASA’a- may come from the fact that minutes before the launch something IS set off that can be described as flares…it’s just a big spark generating device, but that’s at the BASE of the rocket and is done to prevent the build up explosive gasses (and to aid in the actual ignition .. yes, firing a rocket is pretty damn close to striking a match and holding it in the exhaust nossle))

  11. @Rob .. you are correct in that my explanation is purely based on reasoning and observation of that one picture.
    I have NOT tried to verify it in any way. I should have done that. Interesting challenge! Let’s see what we can come up with. The FIRST thing is to check if those towers indeed ‘fold down’ as I assumed. I’m not sure this is indeed the case. If it is, then we’re on the right track proving I was right… I think… Interesting!

  12. Paul – your explanation *sounds* reasonable – even likely. But if you are correct then every media outlet has the story wrong – even NASA reports that these are flares set off several minutes before the launch – which would explain why we don’t see them on the video.

    But I think we need an authoritative answer on this – because I’m not sure WHAT caused this pretty photo affect!

  13. I liked the phrase “.. are too well choreographed to have any real function ..”
    Man! The Intelligent Design proponents in your audience are going to choke on THAT one.

    Anyway: as for “a ton of birds in the air around the launch site”. In this particular picture: that’s an optical illusion caused by the extreme tele-phote effect. (The birds are way too big compared to the shuttle to be anyway near it). Not that it matters much. Unlike planes with propellers or air sucking jet engines, rockets have nothing to fear of birds. Besides, at ignition (before liftoff) there’s not a single bird anywhere NEAR that thing that makes the most noise of any man made machine ever. And IF there IS a deaf, lame chicken around, it’s incinnerated by the time the shuttles starts to move.

    So,then, what are these ‘warning flares’ for on the Soyuz? Well.. those aren’t ‘flares’!
    Notice two things: you only see them in the picture, not in the video, second if they were flares, you’d expect parabolic paths, yet these seem circular. What you see here is a ‘time’ exposure: a picture where they left the shutter open for quite some time. Which time? The time it took to lower the service and supply towers around the rocket. The ‘flares’ are just the lights on these towers being lowered. You also may notice that the ‘streaks’ are equal in light intensity and appear and end into nowhere… you’d expect flares to either reach the ground or get dimmer (this is acutally what made me look closer).
    Nice picture though!


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