Northern light enthusiasts got a surprise mixed in with the green bands of light dancing in the Alaska skies: A light baby blue spiral resembling a galaxy appeared amid the aurora for a few minutes.
The cause early Saturday morning was a little more mundane than an alien invasion or the appearance of a portal to the far reaches of the universe. It was simply excess fuel that had been released from a SpaceX rocket that launched from California about three hours before the spiral appeared.
Sometimes rockets have fuel that needs to be jettisoned, said space physicist Don Hampton, a research associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.
“When they do that at high altitudes, that fuel turns into ice,” he said. “And if it happens to be in the sunlight, when you’re in the darkness on the ground, you can see it as a sort of big cloud, and sometimes it’s swirly.”
While not a common sight, Hampton said he’s seen such occurrences about three times.
The appearance of the swirl was caught in time-lapse on the Geophysical Institute’s all-sky camera and shared widely. “It created a bit of an Internet storm with that spiral,” Hampton said.
Photographers out for the northern lights show also posted their photos on social media.
The rocket took off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California Friday night with about 25 satellites as its payload.
It was a polar launch, which made it visible over a large swath of Alaska.
The timing of the fuel dump was timed correctly for visibility over Alaska. “And we got that really cool looking spiral thing,” he said.
While it looked like a galaxy going over Alaska, he assures it wasn’t.
“I can tell you it’s not a galaxy,” he said. “It’s just water vapor reflecting sunlight.”
In January, another spiral was seen, this time over Hawaii’s Big Island. A camera at the summit of Mauna Kea, outside the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s Subaru telescope, captured a spiral swirling through the night sky.
Researchers have said it was from the launch of a military GPS satellite that lifted off earlier on a SpaceX rocket in Florida.