What was this spiral captured amid the Northern Lights in the skies of Alaska?

A light baby blue spiral resembling a galaxy appears amid the aurora for a few minutes in the Alaska skies
A light baby blue spiral resembling a galaxy appears amid the aurora for a few minutes in the Alaska skies Copyright Christopher Hayden/AP
Copyright Christopher Hayden/AP
By Euronews with AP
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It may look like a galaxy up close, or even a portal to another dimension - what caused this odd spiral to appear in Alaska's night sky?


A blue spiral that looked like a galaxy - or perhaps a portal to another dimension - was pictured in the skies above the US state of Alaska over the weekend. The reason behind its appearance is, however, fairly mundane. 

Already enjoying a light show put on by the aurora borealis, skywatchers were shocked to see the spiral appear on Saturday for a few minutes. 

While it looked like something out of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, where the protagonists move between worlds in a portal opened amid the Northern Lights, the spiral was in fact caused by frozen rocket fuel.

A SpaceX rocket had launched from California around three hours before the spiral appeared. Rockets sometimes jettison their remaining fuel, explained space physicist Don Hampton, a research associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.

“When they do that at high altitudes, that fuel turns into ice,” he said. “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”.

While not a common sight, Hampton said he’s seen such occurrences about three times.

The appearance of the swirl was caught in time-lapse on the Geophysical Institute’s all-sky camera and shared widely. “It created a bit of an Internet storm with that spiral,” Hampton said.

Photographers out for the Northern Lights show also posted their photos on social media.

The rocket took off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Friday night with about 25 satellites as its payload.

It was a polar launch, which made it visible over a large swath of Alaska.

The timing of the fuel dump was timed correctly for visibility over Alaska. “And we got that really cool-looking spiral thing,” he said.

While it looked like a galaxy going over Alaska, he assures it wasn’t.

“I can tell you it’s not a galaxy,” he said. “It’s just water vapour reflecting sunlight”.

In January, another spiral was seen, this time over Hawaii’s Big Island. A camera at the summit of Mauna Kea, outside the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s Subaru telescope, captured a spiral swirling through the night sky.

Researchers have said it was from the launch of a military GPS satellite that lifted off earlier on a SpaceX rocket in Florida.

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