SpaceX Falcon 9 Starlink Launch Mistaken for Comet Shooting Across the Sky

A SpaceX Starlink rocket launch confused citizens across the U.S. in the early hours of March 14 when it lit up the night sky with a blue trail.

The company's Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at just after 6:00 a.m. EDT from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a mission to deploy a batch of 60 satellites to low Earth orbit.

On its way to space, the rocket's exhaust left behind a trail of vapor that, at such high altitude, was illuminated by the sun, which was still hidden under the horizon for people on the ground.

Timelapse of the absolutely incredible twilight phenomenon from this morning’s Space X launch as seen from Maryland. Got some dslr pics too! #spacex #Falcon9

— Robbie (@RobbMDWxMedia) March 14, 2021

This gave the trail a bright glow that was reported by residents in states including Virginia and North Carolina.

One West Virginia resident told local broadcaster WVVA: "Of course at the time I didn't realize what it was. I thought, is that a spaceship or something falling from space and just burning up? That's what it looked like." A Twitter user said they thought the rocket was a comet.

The rocket launch came just three days after SpaceX's previous Starlink mission launched, in which a further 60 Starlink satellites were deployed.

The company conducts the Starlink launches regularly with the aim of building an array of orbiting satellites that beam an internet connection down to Earth.

SpaceX says the Starlink satellite internet service is suited for rural or remote communities where an existing connection may be weak.

It is currently in beta service, meaning data speeds may vary between 50Mb/s to 150Mbs for customers, while at times there may be no connection.

The March 14 mission brought the total number of Starlink satellites in orbit to 1,260.

The Federal Communications Commission gave SpaceX permission to launch nearly 12,000 satellites in total back in 2018, though this could rise. SpaceX usually launches around 60 at a time.

The launch was successful, and also marked a milestone for the company. The particular Falcon 9 rocket booster that helped carry the satellites to orbit had flown and landed eight times before, and its March 14 landing made it the only one in SpaceX's fleet to achieve nine landings.

The rocket touched down on an autonomous landing platform that was floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX has conducted a total of 110 Falcon 9 launches. Of these, 70 have landed themselves, and 53 were rockets that had flown at least once before.

Falcon 9 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off from Pad 40 of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Titusville, Florida, May 22 2012. The rockets are able to land themselves and be reused multiple times. Roberto Gonzalez/Getty