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A SpaceX rocket launched 30 minutes after sunset from Vandenberg AFB glows in extremely clear skies. (Photo by Gene Blevins for the Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
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UPDATE: SpaceX has delayed its latest Falcon 9 rocket launch to Sunday morning. The Hawthorne-based rocket-builder posted on Twitter that it was taking additional time for prelaunch systems checks and was moving back the liftoff, originally scheduled for Saturday. 

The jaw-dropping scene created by an illuminated SpaceX rocket exhaust plume shooting across the Southern California skies in late December could be repeated Sunday.

Officials hope for crystal-clear conditions during the Hawthorne company’s scheduled early-morning launch of a Spanish satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, and the rising sun could back-light the exhaust. If conditions prove ideal, it could be visible across the Los Angeles region. The launch also will be broadcast at SpaceX.com.

A SpaceX rocket launched at dusk on Dec. 22 created a magical display across the region as the exhaust's water vapor hit cold air. Another ghostly viewing could be on tap at dawn Saturday.Staff photo by Frank Suraci
A SpaceX rocket launched at dusk on Dec. 22 created a magical display across the region as the exhaust’s water vapor hit cold air. Another ghostly viewing could be on tap at dawn Saturday.<br />Staff photo by Frank Suraci

The Dec. 22 sight was so shocking that people travelling at rush-hour pulled off the road to stare in amazement and many wondered if aliens were about to land. The ghostly glowing plume shot across the sky, changing shape as it moved. Seen as far away as Arizona, it was captured in video and still images on thousands of cellphones.

Alarmed residents called police departments and the Los Angeles Fire Department issued an alert about the “mysterious light in the sky.”

The images were created by water vapor in the exhaust clashing with the cold, high-altitude air and forming a condensation trail that appeared to have a life of its own.

The launch was originally scheduled for Saturday, but the company opted for its backup launch window, reserved for 6:16 a.m. Sunday, to spend more time on prelaunch preparation, according to a post on Twitter.

The SpaceX-made Falcon 9 rocket will be carrying a nearly 3-ton Earth-imaging satellite called Paz for Madrid-based operator Hisdesat.

A previously flown rocket booster will be used to launch the payload into orbit, but it will not be recovered at sea and brought to the Port of Los Angeles, as the company often does.

Less than two weeks ago, SpaceX launched its newest rocket, the Falcon Heavy, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’s the most powerful operating rocket in the world, capable of lifting 64 metric tons outside Earth’s atmosphere.

Following that Feb. 6 launch, the company simultaneously landed two of the three boosters that lifted the rocket’s second stage into orbit.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk seemed surprised at the breathless public reaction to the December launch sight, posting on Twitter: “Having a sinking feeling that most people actually do think it was aliens … So strange that people often believe things inversely proportionate to the evidence. Given a set of possible explanations, why pick the extremely unlikely one!?”

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