Northern lights enthusiasts were treated to a spectacular sight over Alaska recently when a light blue spiral appeared alongside the usual green aurora bands. The unusual phenomenon was caused by nothing other than excess fuel from a SpaceX rocket that had launched from California three hours earlier.
When excess fuel is jettisoned at high altitudes, it can turn into ice; if this ice happens to be in sunlight, it appears as a large swirling cloud and can be visible from the ground. Space physicist Don Hampton from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute explains that this phenomenon is not uncommon (he has seen it three times before).
The Geophysical Institute’s all-sky camera captured the appearance of the swirl, which quickly went viral on the internet. Photographers also posted their photos on social media. The rocket that launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base carried around 25 satellites as its payload, and its polar trajectory made it visible over a large part of Alaska. The spiral appeared during a fuel dump and was captured by the camera’s time-lapse feature. Hampton emphasizes that the spiral was not a galaxy, but simply water vapor reflecting sunlight.
While the spiral may not have been an extraterrestrial portal or galaxy, it was a stunning addition to an already breathtaking natural spectacle. The appearance of the spiral underscores the incredible beauty and unpredictability of the natural world, even when influenced by human technology.