SpaceX Crew 6 liftoff lights up the sky in stunning photos

A five-minute long exposure shows a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's Dragon spacecraft on NASA's SpaceX Crew-6 mission to the International Space Station on March 02, 2023 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  (Image credit: Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)

There's nothing quite like a night launch.

SpaceX launched the Crew-6 mission early on Thursday (March 2) atop a Falcon 9 rocket launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying the Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft and the four crewmembers inside. The team is headed to the International Space Station (ISS) to perform a 6-month space science mission. The launch took place at around 12:34 a.m. EST (0534 GMT) from Space Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, according to the company’s website

The liftoff and the subsequent journey to the upper atmosphere were captured in a series of stunning images from SpaceX, NASA, and other onlookers that perfectly demonstrate the power and drama of rocket launches.

Related: SpaceX launches Crew-6 astronaut mission to space station for NASA
Read more: Meet the SpaceX Crew-6 astronauts launching to the International Space Station on Feb. 26

Many of the images show the Falcon 9 framed in orange lighting up the dark midnight skies over Florida. Other images show the rocket as it climbs toward orbit to jettison the upper stage, leaving in its wake a massive glowing cloud at its launch position and a bright fiery trail in the dark sky. 

The Crew-6 mission lifts off behind the famous countdown clock at the Kennedy Space Center's press site in Florida. (Image credit: GREGG NEWTON/AFP via Getty Images)

Following the successful separation of the upper stage and the Dragon crew module from the Falcon 9's first stage, after just over 2.5 minutes of flight, the upper stage continued to space. 

Photographers watch the launch of the Crew-6 mission at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, early on March 2, 2023. (Image credit: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

Around 9.5 minutes after launch, the lower stage returned to Earth and successfully landed on SpaceX's floating droneship Just Read the Instructions (JRTI) positioned in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. Dragon Endeavor is expected to dock at the station on Friday (March 3) at around 1:17 a.m. EST (0617 GMT) in the morning.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft lifts off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, early on March 2, 2023. (Image credit: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

After 12 minutes the upper stage separated from the Dragon Endeavor crew module leaving its passengers the Crew-6 team hurtling towards the ISS at around 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kilometers per hour), according to NASA. This moment in the mission was also imaged, with a NASA picture capturing the moment that the Endeavour capsule separated from the Falcon 9 upper stage from the perspective of the latter. 

(Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Crew-6 crew is made up of NASA astronauts Stephen Bowen and Warren "Woody" Hoburg, United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi and Roscosmos cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev. Among the science missions conducted by the crew will be the collection of molecules from outside the ISS and the investigation of the effects of long-term space missions on human health.

Read more: SpaceX Crew-6 astronauts will answer 'burning questions' with space station science

SpaceX's Dragon Endeavour spacecraft separates from the second stage during NASA's SpaceX Crew-6 mission on Thursday (March 2). (Image credit: NASA) previously reported that Crew-6 pilot Hoburg, told SpaceX operators just after separation: "Just want to say, as a rookie flyer, that was one heck of a ride. Thank you!"

Hoburg wasn't the only rookie on this mission; this was also the first liftoff and landing for the Falcon 9 lower stage, which was used rather than a lower stage with a series of missions under its figurative belt such as the lower stage used to carry Starlink V2 satellites to orbit on Monday

That lower section had been used on two previous missions in January 2023, and November 2022, before it successfully touched down on the other SpaceX floating drone ship, A Shortfall of Gravitas, also positioned in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Robert Lea
Senior Writer

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.