SpaceX: Lighting Up the Sky

Imagine this: the ever so majestic & sleek Falcon 9, engines roaring, as it rises into the sky. All the while, photographers and enthusiasts of all ages gaze upward in amazement at the payload of supplies being sent into orbit. Spectacular isn't it?

Well, if the average SpaceX launch can steal your attention wait until you hear about the latest social media uproar! During it's latest launch, the falcon 9 stunned even its most loyal fans. A dazzling lightshow left spectators speechless and even fearful that this illuminated sky was the start of an Alien invasion. Thankfully, Eric Garcetti, LA’s mayor, was there to set the record straight. Sorry fans, it's not aliens – just science.


Picture by: @Fantomfoto

 While we also love our fair share of sci-fi, this illumination was the beautiful and sleek Falcon 9 delivering Earth-observation radar satellite SAOCOM-1A to orbit commissioned by Argentina’s national space agency. We have witnessed the rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, around 158 miles (254 kilometers) north of Los Angeles and successfully make a historical first landing at SpaceX’ newest site, Landing Zone 4.

The Argentine Space Agency's 3,527-lb (1,600 kilograms) SAOCOM-1A satellite, the launch's payload, is a part of a future six-satellite constellation that will work in cooperation with an Italian constellation known as COSMO-SkyMed. The satellite consortium will take high-resolution images of Earth twice a day.

You're probably thinking....but what about the lights?

To be honest I had no idea myself, so I decided to do some research and dedicate our next blog to it. Luckily the answer to this question appeared to be quite easy to understand.


Picture by: @Tomjudah

As the first stage the rocket streamed through the upper atmosphere, it entered a blanket of dry, cold air. With the Merlin engines burning propellant and liquid oxygen, they leave an exhaust trail that freezes due to the surrounding conditions. The results are visually comparable to the condensation trails we see from the hundreds of passing airplanes.

Basically there is a frozen cloud ‘’following’’ the Falcon. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean Falcon 9 launches will always result in LA’s spin on Aurora Borealis (northern lights). Another important element to this light show was its timing. When the rocket took off, it was about half an hour after sundown. While there weren't any sunbeams touching the earth around Vandenberg anymore, rays of light were still passing through the stratosphere above. This created a reflection in the frozen clouds, making them visible for us in the most fascinating of ways. The cloud, in a way, captured a bit of daylight in darkness. This effect also made it possible to clearly see the beautiful moment of stage separation, captured eloquently in the video below by Ram Ganti.

I dont know about you, but I'd take this lightshow over an alien invasion any day. The pictures speak for themselves, don't they ;)?

Found anything inaccurate? Kindly let us know through


Kristie Perkins

Amazing images! Thank you. Did something fall in the ocean or return to ground? :-)

Kristie Perkins

Awesome blog!!

Charles Wallace

The fireball effect after separation I believe was caused by the forward-facing firing of the first stage, slowing itself down to return for landing. It looks like the that burn started before the rocket was fully turned around, so the flame sweeps around and creates a blooming effect, even engulfing the second stage for a while. Since it has to reverse direction, temporarily hitting zero speed, makes sense that it also needs some upward acceleration to maintain altitude…

Charles Wallace

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