Early on Saturday morning, Todd Salat was outside doing what he often does: aiming his camera at the sky to capture stunning images of the aurora borealis. The photographer from Anchorage then saw something out of the ordinary: a bright light appeared suddenly on the northern horizon and began to resemble a spiral as it approached.
On Saturday, Salat remarked, “It got bigger and bigger.” And I had no clue what it was at all. The blue-white spiral appeared to be in rapid motion. After five minutes, it was virtually overhead, he said. He described it as “a gorgeous work of art in the sky.” Perhaps the most out-of-the-ordinary event I’ve ever witnessed.
Aurora Hunter Salat, a photographer who focuses on the northern lights, spent the next two hours snapping images of the pulsating auroras and pondering the conundrum of the spiral.
Northern Lights in Alaska Sky
University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute research associate professor Don Hampton wrote in an email on Saturday that the spiral “appears to be rocket engine exhaust from a SpaceX Transporter-7 mission that launched on the Falcon 9 about three hours earlier in California.”
“Water vapor in the exhaust from the second stage engine freezes and catches high-altitude sunlight, effectively glowing, and creating this spiral galaxy of a display,” wrote Hampton. “It did this pass-by over Alaska, stunning many night-watchers,” he added of the rocket’s high-altitude trajectory.
The northern lights were predicted to be visible hundreds of kilometers away from Salat, and so on Saturday morning, Elizabeth Withnall, a midwife in the Northwest Arctic settlement of Kotzebue, went outside to observe them.
She shot many photographs of the developing spiral, like Salat, unaware of its significance. “We get a lot of very unusual phenomenon in the sky in the far north,” she explained. I’ve seen rainbows amid the clouds and fog. So I was like, “Huh, that’s… whatever that is in the sky, and I have no idea what it is, but it’s pretty cool.”
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After uploading a few images of the spiral on Facebook, she asked members of a group that used to monitor aurora activity if they were familiar with it. Hundreds of individuals reacted to the bizarre sight, and many of them expressed their opinions.
SpaceX’s successful deployment of many satellites is often cited as the cause. “Honestly, I’ve never posted anything that got so many hits and comments,” she confessed.
When Salat finally got online that morning, she saw the same information that Hampton and a lot of social media commenters had found. He felt more fulfilled by simply witnessing the strange phenomena firsthand than by solving the mystery.
The spiral was exquisite; it was beautiful. It was very attractive. He admitted, “It was a shame to think of it as exhaust.For all its amazement, “I did enjoy that mystery, and the unknown,” as the speaker puts it, “because after I found out what it was, I noticed that the wonder of it all kind of faded a little bit.”
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