A strange looking swirl that appeared in the night skies over Alaska had many spectators transfixed and mystified as to what it could be — especially as it sat in the middle of a dazzling display of the Northern Lights.
The light blue spiral contrasted with the bright greens emitted by the Northern Lights to produce a rare but brilliant spectacle for the witnesses on the ground.
However, despite its stargate-style appearance, there was a simple and quite down-to-earth explanation as to what caused it — just surplus fuel dumped from a SpaceX rocket that took off in California a few hours before its mesmerising appearance.
It has happened on a few occasions before. In January one could be seen above Hawaii, and during the summer of 2022, New Zealanders were treated to a similar spectacle, also due to particles of rocket fuel from an Elon Musk launch dancing in the atmosphere and being shaped by the air currents.
It is a routine practice when rockets need to jettison excess loads, according to Dr Don Hampton, a space physicist from the Fairbanks Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska.
Of the phenomenon over the North American state at the weekend, he said: “What we did finally chase it back to is that Spacex launched one of their Falcon 9 rockets out of Vandenberg (California) — so it’s either that the burn, in order to de-orbit that second stage, send out a whole bunch of basically water-vapour which froze up. Or I think they also will dump their fuel before it comes down, just so the second stage is a little lighter.
“And when that comes out, it comes out on cold space and it freezes into ice crystals. And so the ice crystals reflect the sunlight up in space and then we can see it on the ground as it goes over.
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“The rocket itself was spinning, so when it came out it made this sort of spiral. It looks like a lawn-sprinkler kind of effect. But it is a little alarming when you first see it, you think maybe the invasion has started — but we are just invading ourselves, I guess.”
Images of the phenomenon were captured and posted on social media by many of the witnesses in Alaska and was caught by the Geophysical Institute’s all-sky camera in a series of time-lapse pictures.
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