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The SpaceX light show yesterday

Falcon 9 launch, December 22, 2017

Numerous news articles today have noted that last night’s launch by SpaceX of ten Iridium satellites produced a somewhat unusual light show for Californians. Reader Frank Kelly sent me some images he took, noting,

I was able to catch the booster ascent, stage separation, second stage burn and what looks like the booster spinning with at least one engine firing. The spinning went on for a while so it must have had some fuel left.

I read SpaceX said they would not land this booster so maybe they had some fun with it for us folks in LA. It spun around for a minute like a pinwheel. A great show.

close-up of first stage maneuvers

The image above right is one of his images, reduced in resolution to post here. Below that is a cropped section of the full resolution image, showing the “pinwheel” being performed by the first stage. And as other readers of BtB have also noted, the launch crew was clearly performing engine tests and maneuvers with this first stage, all the way down to the ocean.

As is typical of SpaceX, they waste no opportunity to test their equipment and find out what it can do, on the extreme. I suspect these maneuvers were designed to push the first stage’s ability to recover from an out-of-control spin. From the call-outs by engineers during the launch, it appears that this test was a success, as it appears from those call outs that the first stage “landed” properly upright in the ocean.

Let me add that in reviewing some of the youtube videos posted by my readers in the comments below, I also think these first stage maneuvers might be tests in preparation for the first Falcon Heavy launch, which will involve landing three first stages at the same time, two landing very close together at Kennedy. The flight tests yesterday could be an effort to demonstrate how well they can program those first stages for their return.


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  • wayne

    Great Post!

  • wayne

    There is an excellent picture headlined at Drudge.

  • Jacob

    Out of dozens of videos, this is the best footage I’ve seen so far:

    At 1:50 you see the fairings firing their thrusters too! Quite spectacular.

    Another great video is this one:
    It shows the whole launch compressed down to 20 seconds. At the end the landing burn can be seen.

  • wayne

    Excellent stuff!

  • wayne

    alright, ‘everyone’ is uploading their vid’s to YouTube!

    SpaceX launch seen in Phoenix
    (from a helicopter news crew)

    (just ignore the babble from the news-lady, she doesn’t have a clue what’s she’s saying!)

  • wayne

    Forgot to thank Frank!

  • Frank

    You are welcome Wayne and everyone. It’s luck when you are standing at water’s edge with a DSLR when a rocket flash appears in the viewfinder.

    Capitalism in space: Computers, thrusters and extra fuel on everything that flies. And powerful and reliable engines to lift it all.

  • wayne

    This is a great Story, on a number of amazing dimension’s.

    (Please follow up on this Mr. Z., after the dust settles…. You are right on the money with your speculation’s!) (Which is why, you get the big-money!! :) )

    What, is the percentage of the general population, that has no idea about SpaceX, or space in general?
    I like Space, and I don’t assume everyone else does, but I see the UFO people are going insane on YouTube, and some of these local televisions newscasts….they babble & they blatantly make stuff up. (‘like, it’s all fake-news!)

    -Musk was apparently tweeting pictures of the launch, along with “alien UFO rocket’s from North Korea,” type captioned quip’s. The twitterverse was allegedly aflutter!

    Totally tangentially; I’m on the s-w Lake Michigan coast, and when you get the sun setting at the right angle, you get a fantastic back-lit cloud/ airplane contrail, effect. I can only imagine how spectacular that effect was out West! And there are a lot of good video’s popping up.

    (I do not like the electric cars & solar panels, but I must admit, Musk is one Genuine Rocket Scientist! Nothing succeeds likes success.)

  • Wayne asked, “What, is the percentage of the general population, that has no idea about SpaceX, or space in general?”

    I must tell you that among practically everyone I have spoken to over the past three years, both closely and casually, since SpaceX began to attempt to land its first stage, has been amazingly knowledgeable about the company. They haven’t always known the fine details, but it seems to me that a very large percentage, possibly a majority, of the public is following this story with great interest.

    Nor is this surprising. What SpaceX is doing is cool!

  • Joe

    SpaceX is doing what NASA used to be known for doing, first rate engineering and science, great posts Wayne!

  • Localfluff

    It’s great advertising for suborbital rocket travel, that people can watch a rocket separate and turn around to land. So why not New York – Tokyo in 40 minutes. They should put a crew compartment on the first stage to steal Blue Origin’s entertainment market.

  • Kirk

    Here is a video of the launch shot from a California highway.
    Rocket in the Sky plus Accident

  • I have another thought about the behavior of the first stage. I wonder if the SpaceX team isn’t also testing to see if spinning the stage will help protect it from damage as it descends through the atmosphere. Such a condition, if successful, would be useful for getting the second stage back to Earth safely.

    From what I understand, they have already learned that that a bubble forms around the stage as it descends and actually acts as a kind of shield. This spinning might have been a test to see how that bubble is changed by it.

  • Joe

    Interesting thought with regard to reentry of the first stage, maybe it would need less heat shielding.

  • pzatchok

    Actually there is no typical heat shield on the falcon 9.

    It never achieves a speed over mach 6. The rocket engines exhaust blossom helps shield it from some of the heat while it makes its initial slowdown in the upper thin atmosphere.

    The only typical heat shielding is a set of panels in between the engines that both protects the rocket on lift off and re entry.

    NASA knew this years ago and in fact recovered a few Saturn first stages for examination after they crashed into the ocean.
    They tried to think of a few ways to recover it intact but eventually decided that salt water was too corrosive on some of the parts to make it economical. plus they didn’t want to give up any lift capability to make room for a landing system.

  • Edward

    Having watched a couple of videos of the launch, I am not convinced that the strange sight was due to the first stage having been spun up. It looks to me like the behavior of the thrusters naturally forms the observed shapes as the gasses expand in space. I think that it is the uniqueness of the viewing angle coupled with the recent sunset that has us confused as to what we are seeing.

    pzatchok wrote: “They tried to think of a few ways to recover it intact

    Although this is the first that I have heard of this, I recall that NASA was proposing to use a modified Saturn V first stage, wings added, to help launch an early version of the Space Shuttle, then have the first stage return to the launch site and land horizontally on a runway.

    As with the “hang glider” (paraglider) landing system for the Gemini spacecraft ( ), this idea was short lived.

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