Falcon launch lights up IWV skies

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Falcon launch lights up IWV skiesThe fading light of the sun illuminates the exhaust plumes of the Falcon 9 — which painted a vibrant display across Sunday evening skies all over California. — Photo by Ken Sanger

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Indian Wells Valley residents were treated to a spectacular twilight show Sunday when the SpaceX launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base left a blooming burst of color in the sky, seen from hundreds of miles around.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched the SAOCOM 1A satellite at around 7:20 p.m. As the craft rose in the sky, it spawned an iridescent cloud that blossomed, catching the fading rays of the sun.

Even from this distance, viewers could make out a pinpoint of light left by the ascending payload, as well as a second descending back to earth as one of the two-stage boosters glided back to Vandenberg, landing eight minutes after liftoff.

Although SpaceX has now pulled off 30 first-stage landings, Sunday’s was the first to touch down in California (all previous ones occurred at Cap Canaveral or over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans). Continuously firing thrusters allowed viewers to witness the historic landing.

SAOCOM 1A, developed by Argentina’s national space agency, will observe Earth by radar from about 385 miles above the planet. The readers will primarily measure soil-moisture levels, aiding predictions for crop yields as well as officials’ ability to monitor disasters such as floods and fires.

But for Californians the interest appears to focus on the opportunity to witness what for many was a stunning surprise. Even while panicking posters took to social media for explanations, news feeds began to fill with photos and news links detailing the cause.

“My 5-year-old daughter saw it first,” said Michael Petersen, who was driving his family home from up north on U.S. 395.

“She said, ‘Is that a firework? It’s so beautiful!’ My 3-year-old son said, “Can I see? I can’t see it!”

So Petersen pulled over to allow everyone to share in the experience. “We watched as the illuminated cloud continued to expand and two points of light separated,” he recalled.

“I smiled as I realized what was about to be attempted. In just a few years, SpaceX has worked through learning pains and proved that boost-back landing of a first stage can be routine.”

SpaceX has been the leader in commercial low-orbit flight. The reusable system, which incorporates the boost-back technique, is expected to yield significant savings in the historically cost-prohibitive access to space.

“The result is beautiful and inspiring,” said Petersen. “After we returned home, we watched a launch video. My kids were riveted. They helped with the countdowns and cheered as the rocket landed. They were inspired. I smiled.”

In addition to his personal interest in space, Petersen is an aerospace engineer for egress, deceleration and parachute systems at China Lake. He has collaborated with NASA and Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories on a variety of programs.

Many space enthusiasts and astrophotographers planned ahead, traveling to exotic locations for viewing and capture of the unique experience.

But many local photographers managed breathtaking photos even without notice.

“I just came home, knowing nothing about the rocket launch,” said local photographer Ken Sanger. He was prompted to look at the occurrence, and hastily assembled his scattered equipment, made an educated estimate on settings, and photographed the sight from his backyard.

“I only got off about six shots total.” He looked at the image and histogram, adjusted settings, and got a good exposure on the second or third shot. “Then I shot a couple more before the booster turned off,” he said.

If you missed the launch on Sunday, SpaceX has announced three more during the month of November. Watch for updates on https://spaceflightnow.com/launch-schedule/.

Story First Published: 2018-10-12