Enthusiasts of the Northern Lights in Alaska witnessed a rare sight last Saturday as a light baby blue spiral appeared amidst the green bands of the aurora. However, this phenomenon was not caused by an extraterrestrial invasion or a portal to the far reaches of the universe. Instead, it was simply excess fuel that had been jettisoned from a SpaceX rocket that launched from California about three hours before the spiral appeared.
According to Don Hampton, a space physicist and research associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, excess fuel that is released from rockets at high altitudes turns into ice, which, if it happens to be in the sunlight, can appear as a big, swirly cloud. While this occurrence is not common, Hampton claims to have seen such events about three times.
The Geophysical Institute’s all-sky camera captured the spiral on time-lapse, which was then widely shared on the internet, creating a buzz among enthusiasts. Photographers also took to social media to share their images of the phenomenon.
The SpaceX rocket that caused the spiral took off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California with 25 satellites as its payload. Since it was a polar launch, it was visible over a large swath of Alaska, and the timing of the fuel dump was perfect for visibility over the state.
While the spiral looked like a galaxy going over Alaska, it was simply water vapor reflecting sunlight, according to Hampton. In January, a similar spiral was spotted over Hawaii’s Big Island, which researchers attributed to the launch of a military GPS satellite that had lifted off from a SpaceX rocket in Florida.
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