In this picture from the AsiaSat 6 launch by Falcon 9 on 8th September 2014, the part of the rocket between the fairing and the engine appears to be surrounded by dust, water droplets or debris:

Falcon9 launch

And another launch:

Falcon9 launch

There is smoke but many fewer particles in launches of other rockets. Saturn V:




These particles are particularly prominent in Falcon 9. What are they?


Ice. All these rockets use oxygen as the oxidizer component of their propellant. The Saturn 5 also used hydrogen in some of its engines (upper stages). They are stored in liquid state, which requires very low temperatures (below -183c for oxygen, below -253c for hydrogen). Despite insulation, some of the outside surfaces can get cold enough to condense and freeze moisture out of the air, so there will be accumulations of ice. When the vehicle launches, acceleration and vibration shakes it loose so it falls away.

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually, no matter the pressure, it would be impossible to keep oxygen liquid at room temperature, because that is above its critical temperature. $\endgroup$ – Rikki-Tikki-Tavi Nov 10 '14 at 0:38
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    $\begingroup$ Not just moisture. With launchers using liquid hydrogen (LH2), its temperature is low enough to condense and freeze surrounding atmospheric air on contact. This is usually referred to as cryo-pumping. Insulation can help with that but since you'd want it light, it's commonly a spray-on foam that can also soak in boiled-off propellants and purging nitrogen (cryo-ingestion) and get heavier and/or crack with acoustic shock during liftoff. Some launchers would use removable thermal shroud over some of their stages to reduce this and/or boil-off. $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Nov 10 '14 at 5:31
  • $\begingroup$ It's worth also pointing out that ice coming off the external tank and damaging the ceramic heat shield on the space shuttle was the cause of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. $\endgroup$ – pbarranis Jan 11 '15 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Pbarranis: A piece of foam from the external tank, not ice, was the cause of damage to the ceramic heat shield ultimately causing the shuttle's demise. $\endgroup$ – user8235 Jan 14 '15 at 20:16

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