Mark Theisen, Associated Press
14 minutes ago
In this photo provided by Christopher Hayden, a pale baby blue swirl like a star appears amid the aurora in the Alaskan sky near Fairbanks, Saturday, April 15, 2023. A SpaceX rocket that had launched from California about three hours earlier turned into ice, then reflected sunlight in the vapor’s upper atmosphere. (Christopher Hyden via AP)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Northern lights enthusiasts got a mixed surprise with bands of green light dancing across the Alaskan sky.
Saturday morning’s cause is a little more mundane than an alien invasion or the appearance of a portal to the far reaches of the universe. It was excess fuel released from a SpaceX rocket that launched from California three hours before the vortex appeared.
At some point, rockets need to be fueled, said space physicist Dan Hampton, a research associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.
“When they do it at higher altitudes, that fuel turns into ice,” he said. “And if it’s in sunlight, when you’re in the dark on the ground, you can see it as a kind of big cloud, and sometimes it’s spinning.”
Although not a common sighting, Hampton said he’s seen similar instances three times.
The vortex’s appearance was captured in time-lapse on the Geophysical Institute’s all-sky camera and widely shared. “It created an internet storm with that spin,” Hampton said.
Outside the Northern Lights event, photographers also posted their photos on social media.
The rocket lifted off Friday night from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California with about 25 satellites.
It is a polar missile that is visible over a large area of Alaska.
Fuel dump time is correctly calculated for visibility over Alaska. “We’ve got a spiral thing that looks really nice,” he said.
Although it looks like a galaxy is passing over Alaska, he assures it is not.
“I can tell you it’s not a galaxy,” he said. “It’s just water vapor reflecting sunlight.”
In January, another vortex was spotted, this time on the Big Island of Hawaii. A camera atop Mauna Kea outside Japan’s Subaru Telescope National Astronomical Observatory captured the swirling night sky.
Researchers say this has happened since the launch of a military GPS satellite on a SpaceX rocket in Florida.
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