A strange phenomenon occurred in the skies of Alaska early last Saturday, surprising those who were observing the Northern lights. For a brief moment, a spiral of light blue color resembling a galaxy appeared alongside the aurora.
The spiral was caused by the excess fuel that had been released from a SpaceX rocket that had launched from California approximately three hours prior to its appearance.
Don Hampton, a space physicist and research associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, explained that the rockets often need to jettison fuel at high altitudes. This fuel then freezes into ice and can be visible as a large, swirling cloud when illuminated by sunlight.
Although this is not a common sight, Hampton claims to have witnessed it approximately three times.
A 'SPACEX SPIRAL' OVER #ALASKA: Sky watchers were surprised early Saturday when a giant blue spiral sailed through the #NorthernLights. #SpaceX apparently created the phenomenon they captured on camera. https://t.co/IcDkOot3K6 has the unreal video.
Photo credit: Todd Salat. pic.twitter.com/RjhRsWwwE7
— WestportAstroSociety (@westportskyguys) April 16, 2023
The spiral went viral on social media
The rare sight in the sky was captured on camera by the Geophysical Institute’s all-sky camera. The unusual swirling pattern quickly became a popular topic on the internet, causing quite a stir. In addition, many photographers who were out to capture the northern lights posted their photos on social media.
The swirl occurred during a beautiful display of the aurora, which amazed many people who were watching the night sky, including professional photographer Todd Salat.
Mr. Salat is well-known for his stunning aurora images, and he expressed his amazement at the swirling pattern in an email to The Associated Press.
Initially, Mr. Salat was amazed by the unusual sight, but he later learned that it could be explained by rocket science. However, he still cherished the feeling of mystery and excitement that he experienced during and immediately after the sighting.
During a bright northern lights display, an all-sky camera at the University of Alaska’s Poker Flats Research Range caught a fuel dump from @SpaceX rocket which created the eerie blue spiral #spacex #spiral #alaska pic.twitter.com/gQOayZc9rE
— Dean Regas (@DeanRegas) April 16, 2023
The science behind the spiral
On Friday night, a rocket carrying about 25 satellites as its payload took off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
As a result of the fuel dump and the polar launch, a blue spiral was visible over a large part of Alaska. This spiral was visually striking and had a “really cool” appearance, Salat said.
This event is not the first time such a spiral has been observed. In January, another spiral was seen over Hawaii’s Big Island. The spiral was captured on camera by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s Subaru telescope, which is located at the summit of Mauna Kea.
Experts have explained that this spiral was caused by the launch of a military GPS satellite. The satellite had been launched earlier from a SpaceX rocket that took off in Florida.