Northern lights fans got a surprise mixed in with the green bands of light dancing in the Alaskan skies: a galaxy-like light blue spiral appeared amidst the aurora borealis for a few minutes.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Fans of the northern lights got a surprise mixed in as the green bands of light danced in the Alaskan skies: A bright blue, galaxy-like spiral appeared amid the aurora borealis for a few minutes.
The cause early Saturday morning was more mundane than an alien invasion or the appearance of a portal to faraway parts of the universe. It was just excess fuel released from a SpaceX rocket that launched from California about three hours ago.
Sometimes rockets contain fuel that needs to be disposed of, said astrophysicist Don Hampton, an associate professor at the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks Institute of Geophysics.
“When they do it at high altitudes, that fuel turns into ice,” he said. “And if it happens in sunlight, when you’re in the dark on Earth, you can see it as kind of a big cloud, sometimes swirling.”
While not a common sight, Hampton said he witnessed such events about three times.
The appearance of the vortex was captured in time-lapse on the Institute of Geophysics’ all-sky camera and has been widely shared. “It kind of created an internet storm with this maelstrom,” Hampton said.
Photographers who came out for the Northern Lights show also posted their photos on social media.
“All of this happened while passing over Alaska during a beautiful aurora display, and many night watchers including myself were stunned,” professional photographer Todd Salatt, known for his stunning images of the Northern Lights, told the Associated Press in an email.
“Believe me,” he said, “at first, I was quite baffled. I now know this could be explained by rocket science, but during and immediately after the experiment, I thoroughly enjoyed the vague sense of the unknown.”
The rocket took off from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Friday night, carrying about 25 satellites.
The timing of the fuel dump and the fact that it was a polar launch made the blue spiral visible over a large area of Alaska. “We’ve got this really cool spiral thing,” Salah noted.
In January, another vortex was seen, this time over the Big Island of Hawaii. A camera at the summit of Mauna Kea, outside Japan’s Subaru Telescope National Astronomical Observatory, captured a swirling swirl in the night sky.
Researchers said that was the result of a military GPS satellite launched earlier on a SpaceX rocket in Florida.
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