Updated: Mar 11, 2019
SpaceX’s latest launch of the SAOCOM-1A satellite operated by Argentina’s Space Agency, Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CoNAE), was a spectacular one by any definition of the word. The instantaneous launch window at 7:21p.m. (PST) occurred during the magical twilight hour. This allowed for the SpaceX Falcon 9 to produce phenomenal noctilucent, or night shining, exhaust clouds high up in the atmosphere.
Early morning marine layer fog, however, set a worrisome tone for the day. As the photographers and media personnel arrived at Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base the Falcon 9 rocket was shrouded in fog, the very top of the fairing barely visible. As the morning sun continued to rise the fog began to burn off the rocket, launch pad, and brand new landing complex began to emerge.
High hopes were set for the spectacular post sunset show that we were all anticipating. This launch, in particular, came with a high sense of excitement because it would also be the first attempt of a Return to Launch Site landing for the SpaceX team on the west coast.
As the day rolled on the fog stayed off shore, the launch site continued to stay clear, and tons of fans began to line the streets of Lompoc, California to turn their sight to the skies for this historic launch. Many of the media personnel scouted sites around the small military focused town in order to get a unique perspective of the twilight launch and eventual landing. Some chose to experience the event from as close as possible from the media viewing area 5 miles away from launch site on Vandenberg Air Force Base.
As the sun set over the Pacific the anticipation rose and a private jet flew in. Turns out Elon Musk was just as excited about this historic launch as the thousands of onlookers that filled the streets and had to be in town to witness it.
With the marine layer fog hanging out over the ocean the sun set on a perfectly clear night for a rocket launch. Anticipation began to grow and excitement, rather than fog, filled the air. The countdown began and then the 9 Merlin engines of the SpaceX Falcon 9 propelled the ground observing satellite into lower earth orbit.
The real magic, however, began at stage separation, 2 minutes and 24 seconds into flight. The last little bit of sunlight filtered through the higher levels of atmosphere and caught the exhaust clouds produced by the different stages separating and performing different tasks. The second stage engine continued to propel the Argentinian satellite to its final orbit and the first stage engines performed a boost back burn to bring it back to earth. The exhaust clouds produced by these simultaneous events were mixing in the higher level atmosphere and catching the last glimmer of light. The sights seen around southern California were compared to that of a nebula from space.
The gorgeous, awe inducing, sights in the sky were not the only thing that brought excitement to thousands in southern California. Approximately 8 minutes after liftoff the Falcon 9 first stage hurtled back to earth through the atmosphere causing a sonic boom immediately followed by a perfectly orchestrated landing 460 feet away from where it launched. “The Falcon has landed” was called out by a member of the SpaceX teams and cheers erupted throughout the viewing area.
Along with the historic landing, the second stage continued to perform nominally and delivered the SAOCOM-1A satellite to orbit flawlessly. As it did so, thousands were able to track it for hundreds of miles as it sailed through orbit appearing as a comet in the sky.
CoNEA plans to launch another, identical satellite to add to its current one now circling the planet. Its launch is tentatively scheduled for sometime in November of 2019 as the final launch preparations are conducted with the satellite currently in Bariloche, Argentina.
This launch marks the 17th launch of 2018 for SpaceX, 5th from Vandenberg, 16th reflight of a pre used booster, and the 30th recovery of its first stage booster, first on the west coast.