Rocket launch in Florida creates eerie ‘space jellyfish’ cloud

twilight effect on rocket launch
Photo Credit: NWS Melbourne, FL

SPOKANE, Wash.– It’s not an alien invasion, but it does have to do with space!

Rocket launches are becoming a tourist attraction again in Florida, but for different reasons than in the past. Friday morning’s SpaceX launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida is the latest example of the sky phenomenon now being called a “space jellyfish.”

It gets that name from the expanding gasses behind the rocket that creates these eerie colored clouds.

The key to this light show in the sky is the time when the rocket launches. This effect will only happen just before dawn or just after dusk. That’s because the light from the sun will still be shining 200,000 feet up in the atmosphere.  The light will hit the trail of exhaust vapor behind the rocket as it rises and will be reflected back to the ground where we can see it! This is called the twilight effect.

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A space jellyfish is a man-made form of noctilucent clouds. These rare, thin wisps of ice form over 100,000 feet above where most clouds reach in the polar regions of our planet. Because they’re so high up and so thin, they are rarely seen except for near dawn and dusk in the high latitudes with help of the twilight effect. Noctilucent literally means “night-shining.”

Noctilucent clouds

Photo by Kristian Pikner

Sl Clouds

Why can this happen with rocket launches? Much like how airplanes can create clouds as they travel across the sky, the heat and exhaust from the rocket can generate thin icy clouds in the upper atmosphere. This, of course, depends on if there’s enough moisture available for such a thing at the time of the launch. The ballooning effect often seen with these clouds as the rocket rises is because of the lower pressures in the upper atmosphere. The exhaust gas can spread quickly across a large patch of sky.

This combination of artificial clouds shining bright in the darkness can be confusing and scary if you don’t know what it is! So next time you see one of these crazy clouds online, you can admire its beauty and not worry about an impending attack from the stars.

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