There seems to be a consistent mist effect around the Saturn V when launched. It looks like rapidly evaporating water.
What is the material?
What is the purpose?
Did it come from the rocket itself, or from something at launch (water from the ground or air?)

Saturn V launches

All Saturn V launches, 1967–1973 (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Edit: At the linked question ( What is the vapour/smoke that comes from the rocket boosters?) it is said to be water vapor from cryogenic boosters. However a comment by Phil Perry also says

On the Saturn V, if memory serves, the first stage LOX tank was uninsulated, and accumulated a large load of ice, which started shedding when the engines fired up. The second and third stages' LH2 and LOX tanks were insulated, and experienced little external ice buildup.

In the case of the images, was this from ice buildup or LOX pressure bleedoff?

  • $\begingroup$ The mist is mainly bleedoff from boiling propellants, and appears prior to launch; the chunks are water vapor frozen to ice on the exterior of the tanks, shaken off from the vibration at launch. (Technically the visible mist is actually atmospheric water vapor as well, condensing around the bleedoff.) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ I love the side by side shots of the various instances of a booster. Got a nice one of Falcon 9 1.1 someone made as well. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 17:16

2 Answers 2


Ice, mostly water ice on cold LH2 (liquid hydrogen) and LOX (liquid oxygen) tank surfaces with temperatures being low enough to condense, liquefy and freeze solid atmospheric water vapor on contact. Both these propellants are cryogenic to increase their storage density.

As the main stage ignites during liftoff, they're mostly shaken off the launcher due to the vibration of the sonic shock (basically just like we intentionally trigger avalanches with a loud noise, usually with explosives, but this time main engine ignition expands surrounding air so fast it produces a sonic boom, emphasized as it reflects off the ground and blast deflectors), producing that mist that you observe. And some still clings onto the launcher and boils-off during ascent due to aerodynamic heating, with most of it usually gone by the time the launch vehicle reaches maximum dynamic pressure (max q), but you can still observe smaller pieces falling off during staging from the interstage space where ice can form due to trapped bled-off propellants (tho some launch vehicles use an open interstage / aft skirt to help purge those bled-off propellants during ascent and prevent their rapid expansion due to aerodynamic heating, e.g. Soyuz).

Note that the Saturn V first stage used RP-1 (essentially a rocket grade kerosene) as fuel and LOX as oxidizer, and other stages used LH2 and LOX. How much and where the launch vehicle is covered by this condensation ice depends on where on the launch vehicle these tanks are placed, temperature at which cryogenic propellants are stored (LH2 is usually much colder than LOX), tank insulation, ullage and interstage volume, even how much time the launch vehicle sat fueled on the launchpad prior to launch, paint, and of course weather.

Part of the mist could also be due to purging of bled off propellants with gaseous nitrogen just prior to ignition, as can be seen in this slow motion video of Saturn V launch, but most of it would be condensation ice falling off cryogenic surfaces (also seen in the video after main engine ignition):


That mist started out as water vapor in the air. The Saturn V used liquid oxygen and (in the upper stages) liquid hydrogen, both of which are really cold. So the water vapor would condense and freeze onto the outside of the oxygen and hydrogen tanks. During launch, the vibration from the engines would break the ice and it would fall off the vehicle.

  • $\begingroup$ Did this ice have any ramifications on the craft? Any potential danger to the launch? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 17:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Not that I know of. The Saturn V weighed ~2000 tons at liftoff, so the walls were pretty thick to carry all that weight. You'd have to throw a big chunk of ice at it to make a dent. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 18:28

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.