Vandenberg has warned people in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties that they might hear multiple sonic booms as the Falcon 9's first stage touches down at the base's Landing Zone 4.
The launch of the satellite, SAOCOM 1A, is being conducted for Argentina's space agency.
Unspent fuel from the rocket was illuminated by rays from the setting sun, making the contrail visible across wide areas of California.
The booster put on a spectacular show as it descended tail first toward Landing Zone 4 just a few hundred yards from the rocket's launch stand, deploying four legs and firing up one of its nine Merlin engines, seemingly at the last moment, to slow down for touchdown in a cloud of fiery exhaust. You can expect more rocket landings after this, then.
The primary goal of Sunday's mission was to place the SAOCOM 1A satellite into orbit, but SpaceX also successfully sent a first stage booster back to Vandenberg Air Force Base for the first time.
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"Sonic boom warning. This won't be subtle", he wrote. "The rocket took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 7:21 p.m. and landed safely back on Earth".
Such landings are part of SpaceX's push to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets and spacecraft, a breakthrough that company founder and CEO Elon Musk has stressed could cut the cost of spaceflight enough to make grand exploration feats such as the settlement of Mars economically feasible. The satellite is created to provide radar imagery to help emergency responders and monitor the environment, including the collection of soil moisture measurements.
Using titanium "grid fins" at the top of the rocket for steering and attitude control, the booster plummeted tail-first toward Vandenberg.
SAOCOM 1B is planned to launch next year.