Just after sundown on Sunday, people around Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California looked up and spotted the red glare of a rocket.
Mara Altman was at a fund-raiser dinner on a farm outside San Diego. A mariachi band had just started playing when the guests caught sight of the rocket. “I had no idea,” she said. “People were like mesmerized.”
The trumpet player put down his instrument and took out his phone to record the rocket’s flight. The singer continued to sing, while gazing at the sky. “It was just an added part of the party,” Ms. Altman said.
It’s a scene that people in Southern California should expect to see in their skies more often as privately-owned rocket companies expand their use of a nearby launch site.
The rocket on Sunday, a Falcon 9 built by SpaceX, was carrying an Argentine communications satellite into space. It was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, 140 miles northwest of Los Angeles. As SpaceX continues to quicken its pace of launching, a growing number of its rockets will blast off from the California launchpad.
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If you were close enough to the launch site, you also might have enjoyed a double spectacle when the rocket’s booster stage returned a few minutes later to land at Vandenberg, the first time that SpaceX had achieved that feat on the West Coast. (On earlier SpaceX launches there, the booster set down on a barge in the Pacific.)
In addition to producing bright flames from its engines, a rocket leaves behind a trail of water vapor from its exhaust, which condenses and freezes to form a condensation trail, or contrail — a long artificial cloud that, on Sunday night, and during a launch last December pictured below, was visible some time after the rocket disappeared.
When the launch occurs close to sunrise or sunset — when the ground is in darkness but the sky is still bright — sunlight glistens off the contrails, adding to the splendor.
Launches from Vandenberg are nothing new. The Air Force base served as the center of development and testing of ballistic missiles in the 1960s and 1970s. Later, larger rockets carrying secretive military satellites blasted off from there. With a swath of open ocean to the south of Vandenberg, the site is ideal for launching spacecraft on orbits that pass over Earth’s poles.
In the 1980s, the West Coast was set to observe the sky-rattling rumble of the space shuttles, which were originally intended to take over the launching of military satellites in addition to their NASA missions. The Air Force spent several billion dollars preparing a launch site, and the prototype Enterprise orbiter made a trip there to test out the facilities.
In recent years, commercial companies have taken over some of the launchpads. SpaceX leased Launch Complex 4, which previously was used for the Air Force’s Atlas and Titan rockets. The company launched the first Falcon 9 from Vandenberg in 2013, lofting a Canadian science satellite. SpaceX later leased a second site for the landing of its reusable boosters.
There have been 11 launches so far this year from Vandenberg, five of them by SpaceX. Over the decades, the number of launches has actually been declining, from more than 900 in the 1960s to just 79 so far this decade. But the pace has picked up the last couple of years. With nearly three months left in 2018, SpaceX has already launched as many rockets as they did in all of 2017.
In addition to SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Harris are leasing space at Vandenberg from the Air Force. Firefly Aerospace is planning to commandeer another Vandenberg launchpad, formerly used by the now-retired Delta 2 rockets, for future commercial endeavors of its small Alpha rocket, which can deliver a metric ton of payload to low-Earth orbit. (The much bigger Falcon 9 can lift almost 23 metric tons.)
Although rocket launches are becoming more common, viewing conditions are not always ideal. When NASA’s InSight Mars spacecraft launched on an Atlas 5 rocket in May, Vandenberg was shrouded in fog. Observers heard the rumble of the launch but could not see the rocket. Early risers in Los Angeles and San Diego, however, got a good view.
Still, even the most dramatic displays of technological achievement can lose their luster with repeated viewing. Ms. Altman said she probably would not go out of her way to watch another rocket go by.
“It was cool,” she said. “It also just looked like two headlights separating.”
Production by Matthew McCann