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A 'space jellyfish' soared over Florida, thanks to the SpaceX launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center early Friday morning. This time exposure image captured the 'space jellyfish" effect of the contrail viewed from Port Canaveral Marine. The white streak on the horizon was caused by light from a cruise ship coming into port.
Malcolm Denemark
/
Florida Today/USA Today Network via Reuters
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center early Friday morning. This time exposure image captured the 'space jellyfish" effect of the contrail viewed from Port Canaveral Marine. The white streak on the horizon was caused by light from a cruise ship coming into port.

Jellyfish are a common sight along the Florida coast — but people who watched the latest rocket launch from the Kennedy Space Center were treated to a unique sight.

Friday morning's SpaceX launch generated a visual phenomenon known as a "space jellyfish," rewarding people who got up early to see the Falcon 9 rocket's launch with a striking spectacle: an ethereal cloud of illuminated gases, highlighted against the pre-dawn darkness.

The space jellyfish phenomenon occurs when a rocket lifts off in the hours around dawn or dusk. A spectator might be standing in total darkness — but as the craft reaches high altitudes, the sun's rays illuminate the plume of gases in its trail. The effect resembles a jellyfish medusa's bell and tentacles.

Friday's effect varied depending on where people were standing when they saw the rocket. As images posted online show, some observers saw a horizontal streak of silver, while others saw what looked like a billowing luminous cloud.

While the space jellyfish effect only evokes the animal, actual jellyfish have also visited space. In 1991, NASA sent thousands of small jellyfish into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, to study how they react to microgravity.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.