ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Fans of the northern light got a surprise mixed in as the green bands of light danced in the Alaskan skies: a galaxy-like light blue 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 lifted off from California about three hours before the helix appeared.
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 it is not a common sight, Hampton said he has seen 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 that maelstrom,” Hampton said.
Photographers who came out for the Northern Lights show also posted their photos on social media.
The rocket lifted off from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Friday night with a payload of about 25 satellites.
It was a polar launch, making it visible over a large swath of Alaska.
The fuel dump was timed correctly for sightings over Alaska. “We got this really cool screw thing,” he said.
While it appeared to be a galaxy passing over Alaska, he confirmed that it was not.
He said, “I can tell you it’s not a galaxy.” “It’s just water vapor reflecting sunlight.”
In January, another vortex was seenThis 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.
“Devoted student. Bacon advocate. Beer scholar. Troublemaker. Falls down a lot. Typical coffee enthusiast.”