A two-stage Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in northern Santa Barbara County on Friday evening, lofting 10 communications satellites for the commercial Iridium Next constellation.
And the rocket launch delivered quite a dramatic show for San Luis Obispo County and Southern California. People across the region reported seeing the rocket take off across the sky, with dusk as the backdrop.
“What a way to end the year with the fifth Falcon 9 launch carrying the fourth set of Iridium satellites,” space launch commander Michael S. Hough said in a news release. “This mission proved that Team V provides assured access to space and we do it safely and securely.”
According to a story posted on space.com, the Falcon 9’s first stage also launched 10 Iridium Next satellites back in June, making Iridium the first SpaceX customer ever to launch twice atop the same rocket.
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“SpaceX has now re-used Falcon 9 first stages on five separate missions, all of which launched this year,” said Space.com writer Mike Wall. “The company has also landed Falcon 9 boosters 20 times to date.”
Spectators in Southern California and even Arizona saw the show, taking to social media to post pictures while using the hasthtag #UFO and others.
Later, SpaceX founder Musk noted on Twitter, “Nuclear alien UFO from North Korea,” to accompany a video of the show in the sky.
Satellite deployment started approximately one hour after the 5:27 p.m. blastoff and finished less than 75 minutes after launch with all 10 Iridium Next craft arriving in their desired place in space, SpaceX officials said.
“For those of you live who in Southern California, maybe as far as Arizona, Twitter has just exploded with a lot of pictures from people who saw what they call the twilight effect,” SpaceX announcer John Insprucker said on the webcast of the launch. “The contrail of the first and second stages forming beautiful images in the sky, lit by the moon as well as the exhaust of the Falcon engines.”
Launches just before sunrise and just after sunset with clear skies at Vandenberg provide breathtaking shows typically best viewed from areas farther away from the base due to the angle of the sun.
For this mission, SpaceX did not attempt to land the first stage after the lower portion of the rocket completed its job, choosing not to reuse the booster for a third mission.
The mission marked the first time a recycled rocket flew for the same customer. The first-stage motor previously carried the second batch of Iridium Next spacecraft in June.
With Friday’s mission, Iridium Next now has 40 satellites, each the size of a Mini Cooper car, in orbit amid efforts to create a second-generation constellation.
“Today’s launch is an incredible milestone — we have officially reached the halfway point,” said Matt Desch, Iridium’s chief executive officer. “It was an amazing sight to see the Iridium-2 booster back in flight today, carrying Iridium-4 into space. We are excited to be taking part in SpaceX’s rocket reusability initiative and make history as the first company to reuse the same booster.”
The space-based system allows voice and data communications anywhere in the world.
The flight manifest calls for 75 satellites to ride to space aboard Falcon rockets launched from Vandenberg by mid-2018.
The first launch of 2018 from the base likely will be a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket planned for Jan. 10 from Space Launch Complex-6.
The mission with a top-secret National Reconnaissance Office payload was delayed from December.
Another Falcon 9 rocket is planned in late January for a non-Iridium mission.
Noozhawk.com writer Janene Scully contributed to this report.