Friday night was quite a spectacle, and somewhat frightening, for many people along the west coast. Reports of strange U.F.O. activity came pouring in to police stations as people tried to make sense of what they were seeing. Some were terrified while others found the experience truly electrifying.
It turns out that what was initially taken to be evidence that we’re not alone on planet Earth proved more prosaic. SpaceX, a rocket company pioneered by Tesla founder Elon Musk, launched a rocket with multiple telecommunications satellites in tow. The aim was to put those satellites into geosynchronous orbit around the planet.
The rocket was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The stories that began piling up on social media and in police reports were truly out of this world as people reported peculiar condensation trails and a purple mist that seemed more consonant with an H.P. Lovecraft story.
Elon Musk didn’t exactly dispel the confusion and War-of-the-Worlds-style panic among some perplexed observers when he took to Twitter. Musk tweeted, “nuclear UFO from North Korea,” before signing off. In fact, SpaceX’s rocket was releasing exhaust in a low-humidity environment and that caused the water vapor to take on an especially spooky appearance. Cold temperatures and higher altitudes contributed to the dreamlike specter of the scene.
This latest rocket launch is the 18th such launch this year. SpaceX has been a frequent collaborator with the federal government in getting supplies up to the international space station and putting more satellites into orbit. Often these satellites are decades old and need replacement parts or other kinds of maintenance.
This particular mission sought to deliver ten telecom satellites into low geosynchronous orbit. It’s a project called Iridium. The aim of the project is to swap out an obsolete satellite system for a new satellite network that can bolster U.S. space superiority in the decades to come.
Elon Musk, though, used the opportunity to trumpet SpaceX’s upcoming rocket launch. The Falcon Heavy is slated to launch in about a month, and the rocket has the capability of reengaging itself back into its own launchpad. That has huge cost-savings advantages and could make returning equipment (and passengers) less of a myth and more of a commercial possibility over the next decade.
The three boosters supported by the newest Falcon Heavy are meant to be recoverable. Hopefully, future launches will be as eventful as Friday’s.