Brilliant SpaceX rocket launch sparks fireball reports along the US East Coast

This photo by Eduardo R. shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch on March 14, 2021 as seen from Chesapeake Beach, MD.  (Image credit: Eduardo R.)

"Is it a fireball?" "Is it a space jellyfish?" Nope, it's a SpaceX rocket. 

Some observers along the U.S. East Coast saw a strange sight in the dark, early morning sky on Sunday (March 14): a bright object streaking across the sky, leaving a ballooning, illuminated trail behind it. The pre-dawn sky made this spectacle even more striking and the American Meteor Society (AMS) received about 120 reports about "an observed object in the sky," the AMS tweeted. However, the sighting was actually of a SpaceX rocket, not a fireball, the AMS confirmed.

At 6:01 a.m. EDT (1101 GMT) Sunday morning, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying a fresh batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites into low Earth orbit. People all along the East Coast, from Florida up to Maine, saw the rocket's brilliant streak across the sky. 

Related: SpaceX's Starlink satellite launches in photos 

Skywatchers sent the AMS photos of the "fireball," showing the striking image of the rocket midflight. Florida launches like this one are often visible along the East Coast. But this time, because the launch happened in the predawn hours, the sun illuminated the rocket's plume and created a unique atmospheric effect that only happens at dawn and dusk, where the light looks like a "space jellyfish" in the sky. 

This sighting isn't the first time that skywatchers have mistaken a rocket launch for something stranger in the sky. SpaceX launches have sparked claims of UFOs, as they sometimes create strange, squiggly "clouds" in the sky. 

As during SpaceX's other Falcon 9 launches, the reusable rocket's first stage fell back to Earth shortly after launch; it landed on SpaceX's drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You," which was posted in the Atlantic Ocean, the ninth time for this booster. 

SpaceX is working to launch the massive constellation of Starlink internet satellites to create global internet coverage and provide internet connectivity for those in rural or remote areas that otherwise don't have access. 

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.