Rocket Launch Creates Mysterious Lights Over California

December 23, 2017 Updated: October 5, 2018

People in South California had a surprising sight on Friday evening, Dec. 22. A slim, brightly lit cloud formed in the evening sky behind what looked like a comet.

Local media was barraged with calls and social media posts reported the strange phenomenon, considered a UFO by many.

It was, in fact, a multistage Falcon 9 rocket developed by SpaceX and launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County.

The base announced the launch on Dec. 20 on its website. It was also livestreamed on Facebook by SpaceX.

The rocket launched successfully and carried into orbit 10 Iridium Next commercial communications satellites. This was already the fourth batch of Iridium satellites, as the company is replacing its network of low-orbit satellites with 81 new ones.

Aside from data and voice communications, Iridium also hosts on its new satellites an aircraft and ship surveillance systems that will, upon the network’s completion, cover the whole planet. Even now the satellites already tracking a large share of aircraft equipped with compatible transponders. Publicly accessible flight tracking websites like FlightAware, Flightradar24, and OpenSky Network already use the surveillance data.

Many Californians, however, were apparently oblivious to this information and stared at the sky in wonder, as the rocket rose through the atmosphere.