Bright Rocket Contrails Light Up SoCal Sky After SpaceX Launch Tonight

Liftoff happened at 7:21 p.m. Pacific Time on Sunday.

UPDATE: Read about the successful launch here.

SpaceX will launch a Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday evening from Vandenberg Air Force base, carrying an Argentinean satellite and marking the first time the Falcon 9 booster returns to land at Vandenberg AFB.

The Falcon 9 is a two-stage launch vehicle, meaning it is made up of two parts that carry the payload to orbit.

  • First Stage: The booster, or first stage, is what carries the payload for roughly the first 2 minutes and 40 seconds of the launch.
  • Second Stage: The second stage is what the payload is attached to. When the stages separate, the second stage carries the payload to orbit while the booster returns for landing.

The first stage for this launch is a recycled booster that flew the Iridium 7 launch in July. That booster landed on a drone ship in the Pacific. For Sunday's launch, the booster will be landing back at Vandenberg AFB for the first time, on a newly constructed landing pad near the launch site.

Liftoff is currently scheduled for 7:21 p.m. Pacific Time on Sunday. Sunset at Vandenberg is 6:38 p.m. Pacific Time, so there is a chance we could see an illuminated contrail at the very end of the first stage's burn and the start of the second stage's burn. Regardless of illuminated contrail, SoCal residents may get to see something a bit different from the "traditional" Vandenberg launch: the return.

For launch, look towards the west-northwest from the LA area and watch for a bright light that is rapidly climbing into the sky. After the stages separate, we may see another light as the booster turns around and starts flying back towards Vandenberg AFB. This light will be flying in the opposite direction of the launch. Residents closer to Vandenberg may hear a sonic boom as the booster approaches.

SpaceX may again attempt to recover the payload fairings in a giant net attached to a boat. These fairings protect the satellite from the forces of the atmosphere during launch, and are ejected after the stages separate.

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