SpaceX rocket launch at sunset wows some stargazers with ethereal 'space jellyfish' (photos)

When SpaceX launch two satellites into orbit Friday evening from Florida, it lit up the night sky with more than just its fiery engines. 

The twilight launch of two commercial SES satelltes, called O3b mPower 1 and 2, on Dec. 16 created brilliant jellyfish-like plume in the night sky visible to lucky stargazers from hundreds of miles away. The satellites launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket that lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 5:48 p.m. EST (2248 GMT) and was visible from as far away as North Carolina.

"We had great views of SpaceX's launch of O3b mPower 1&2 tonight and were treated to an awesome twilight effect," wrote observers at NCSpaceOps on Twitter (opens in new tab), tagging the view as a "jellyfish effect."

Related: 8 ways that SpaceX has transformed spaceflight

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Ed Piotrowski, the chief meteorologist for WPDE ABC-15 in North Carolina, shared a series of photos by observers on Twitter. 

The photos (opens in new tab), taken from various locations around North Carolina, show stunning views of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket at sunset, trailing a vast, iridescent tail as it soared into space. 

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Some observers asked Piotrowski for help identifying what they were seeing in the night sky.

"Ed Piotrowski, what is this thing?" asked observer Harrison Santangelo on Twitter (opens in new tab).

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One observer, Jermaine Somerset, even reported seeing the launch from the Turk and Caicos Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, over 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) from the Florida launch site, and shared the view in an Instagram post (opens in new tab).

A post shared by Jermaine Somerset (@jermainesomerset) (opens in new tab)

A photo posted by on

The photos from North Carolina were even more striking when considering that SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket plunged into a cloud layer above Cape Canaveral, Florida shortly after liftoff. The view was still amazing to space reporter and photographer Ken Kremer, who captured a long-exposure streak of the launch. 

"60sec wide angle twilight streak! punched into thick overhead clouds never to be seen again!," Kremer wrote of the launch on Twitter (opens in new tab).

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Veteran launch photographer Ben Cooper matched a long-exposure of the sunset launch with a closeup of the moment of liftoff in his views shared on Twitter (opens in new tab).

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Photographer Michael Seeley captured a similar view (opens in new tab) while observing the launch from 14 miles (22 km) away in Cocoa Beach, Florida. 

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SpaceX's launch of the SES satellites was actually its second rocket flight of the day on Friday. The Hawthorne, California-based company kicked off the day with the launch of NASA's new Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite to map Earth's water like never before. 

That mission lifted off at 6:46 a.m. EST (1146 GMT) from a SpaceX pad at California's Vandenberg Space Force Base. SpaceX photos of the flight show brilliant views of the launch, as well as the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage returning for a landing in both still and long-exposure views. 

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SpaceX will launch another Falcon 9 rocket from Florida on Saturday (Dec. 17) to deliver a new batch of its Starlink internet satellites into orbit. That mission will launch from Pad 39A of NASA's Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Liftoff is at 4:32 p.m. EST (2142 GMT). 

You can watch SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launch live online, courtesy of SpaceX. We'll showcase it on Space.com's homepage and our preview story. SpaceX's webcasts typically begin about 15 minutes before liftoff.

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Tariq Malik
Editor-in-Chief

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award (opens in new tab) for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast (opens in new tab) with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network (opens in new tab). To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik (opens in new tab).