Elon Musk’s brainchild SpaceX has kept the skies busy in recent years. Evidence of the company’s activity is most visible at night. But events like the recent Starship launch and explosion have offered plenty of daytime spectacle, too. Starship flew for four minutes in its first orbital test before the automated systems kicked in, initiating a jaw-dropping explosion near Port Isabel, Texas. Debris and dust scattered for miles.

One local who lives six miles north of SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica described the messy, noisy aftermath as “truly terrifying.” Others reported a “mini earthquake,” broken windows, and particles raining down. This isn’t the first time SpaceX has given people something to stare at. Its famed Starlink satellite trains crawl like illuminated centipedes across the night sky.

And a recent fuel dump by Space X resulted in a breathtaking sky spiral against the backdrop of Alaska’s aurora borealis.

A One-of-a-Kind Sight Over Alaska’s Skies

In the wee hours of Saturday, April 15th, aurora borealis fans got an eyeful over the frosty skies of Alaska. Overlaying the swirling, dancing green lights of the northern lights, spectators saw a powder-blue-hued spiral. Reminiscent of a galaxy, the display remained visible for mere minutes. But thanks to time-lapse footage captured by the Geophysical Institute’s all-sky camera, the event was permanently preserved. Not surprisingly, the images soon went viral.

How did this strange spiral end up in the sky, and what did SpaceX have to do with it? We must travel thousands of miles south to California to track down the answer. At Vandenberg Space Force Base, a SpaceX rocket launched Friday night, carrying a payload of 25 satellites. Along the way, the rocket ejected excess fuel. This common practice led to something magical as the spent fuel reached higher altitudes.

Don Hampton of the University of Alaska Fairbanks explains, “When [rockets] do that at high altitudes, that fuel turns into ice. 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.” Of course, what happened over the skies of Alaska at the end of April was clearly a next-level swirl. Juxtaposed against the aurora borealis, it made for unforgettable images.

Northern Lights Photographers Capture the Image

Besides the Geophysical Institute’s pics, some amateur photographers captured the minutes-long event. Many posted their photographs to the internet, ramping up the swirl frenzy. One of those lucky enough to be positioned for picture taking was Todd Salat, a professional photographer.

In an email, he later explained, “Trust me, at first, I was totally bewildered … I thoroughly enjoyed the mysterious feeling of the unknown.” The sight proved especially spectacular because of two factors: 1) the time of the fuel dump and 2) the fact it was a polar launch.

That said, this isn’t the first time that spirals have graced the sky.

In January, Hawaii’s Big Island got its own show. That’s when a camera located on the summit of Mauna Kea snapped images of another mysterious swirl. The capture took place outside of the National Astronomical Observatory. This time, the culprit was the launch of a military GPS satellite from a SpaceX rocket in Florida. But nothing beats the social media storm created by the Alaska event because of the stunning background against which it unfolded.

By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com


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