What SpaceX Has to Do With Mysterious Spirals in the Northern Lights

Omens in the sky are a good thing, right?

A spiral amid the northern lights in Alaska, which was apparently caused by a SpaceX rocket
An unexpected sight in the sky above Alaska.
Don Hampton/University of Alaska Fairbanks

If you gaze into the night sky in the northern latitudes, you might well see the aurora borealis, a stunning and mysterious display. However, should you look up expecting to see the northern lights and instead see a bizarre spiral shape, the good news is that you’re not about to live through a cosmic horror story. The bad news is that there seems to be a simple explanation for what looks like an omen looming in the distance — and it’s connected to spaceflight.

Writing at the Anchorage Daily News, Annie Berman described a recent incident in which a photographer, looking to document the northern lights one night, saw “a sudden, bright light on the northern horizon that quickly started to take on a spiral shape as it drew nearer.” Thankfully, this was a purely atmospheric phenomenon and not some sort of sinister omen. (As far as we know, anyway.)

As it turns out, there’s a more mundane reason for the spiral in the sky: it was likely caused by either rocket engine exhaust or extra rocket fuel that was dumped.

“We learned that SpaceX had launched one of their Falcon 9 rockets into a polar orbit about two hours earlier, and watching a replay of their live feed showed the trajectory going right over Alaska,” Don Hampton, the chief scientist of the University of Alaska’s Poker Flat Rocket Range said in a statement.

This isn’t the only time that such a phenomenon has taken place. A recent Live Science article points to both Chinese and Russian rockets as having caused similar atmospheric spirals. According to the article, it’s led some astronomers to refer to the phenomenon by a distinctive (albeit inaccurate) name: “SpaceX spirals.”

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