japan rocket lauch UFO plasma
Rocket exhaust from Japanese space launch
Remember when the pre-dawn SpaceX launch from Vandenberg just before Christmas created a flurry of UFO reports in Southern California? Now it's Japan's turn.

On Jan. 18th, the Japanese space agency JAXA launched a small rocket from the Uchinoura Space Center. It made a big display. Japanese artist and photographer Kagaya captured dramatic images of the rocket's exhaust glowing in the starry pre-dawn sky over the Pacific:

"I watched the launch from Okinawa Island and photographed it using my Sony α7RIII camera," says Kagaya, who has posted a must-see video of the event on Youtube:

Japan's new Epsilon rocket is relatively small, designed to launch scientific satellites at a fraction of the cost of its larger predecessors. On this occasion, the Epsilon propelled an Earth observing satellite to orbit, the ASNARO-2. Power by solar cells and carrying a large X-band antenna, ASNARO-2 is a synthetic aperture radar capable of imaging the surface of our planet with 1-meter resolution.

Shortly after the launch, noctilucent (night shining) clouds were seen over a broad swath of western Japan as ice crystals forming in the rocket's wake caught the rays of the rising sun. These clouds occur naturally around Earth's poles, but they are very rare at lower latitudes such as Japan's. In polar regions, noctilucent clouds are seeded by specks of meteor smoke, which become frosted by naturally occurring water vapor drifting up toward the edge of space. Over Japan, the ingredients were provided by JAXA: water vapor in the rocket's exhaust mixed with solid-booster aerosols to create the display.