Todd Salat was outside early on Saturday morning, doing what he does frequently: pointing his camera at the sky to get beautiful pictures of the aurora borealis. The photographer from Anchorage then noticed something strange: a sudden, bright light on the northern horizon that quickly began to resemble a spiral as it got closer.
“It got bigger and bigger,” Salat said Saturday. “And I had absolutely no idea what it was.” The spiral of blue-white seemed to be moving swiftly. It was practically overhead after five minutes, he said.
“It was a beautiful piece of art in the sky,” he said. “I would say this was maybe the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Salat, a photographer who specializes in the northern lights and goes by the name Aurora Hunter, spent the following two hours taking pictures of the dancing auroras while also pondering the mystery of the spiral.
In a message sent on Saturday, Don Hampton, a research associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, said 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,” Hampton wrote. As the rocket gained altitude, “it did this pass-by over Alaska, stunning many night-watchers,” he said.
Elizabeth Withnall, a midwife in the Northwest Arctic settlement of Kotzebue, was outside in the early hours of Saturday to see the northern lights, which were expected to remain bright overnight, hundreds of kilometers distant from Salat.
When the spiral first formed, she took several pictures of it even though, like Salat, she had no idea what she was seeing. “We get a lot of very unusual phenomenon in the sky in the far north,” she said.
“I’ve seen fog bows, and rainbows around the moon. So I just thought, ‘this is some weird thing in the sky, and I don’t know what it is, but it’s pretty cool.’ ”
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She asked individuals in a Facebook group that used to follow aurora activity whether they knew what the spiral was after posting a couple of pictures of it. Hundreds of people reacted to the unexpected sight, and dozens of people spoke up.
The most widely accepted reason is the launch of several satellites by SpaceX. “Honestly, I’ve never posted anything that got so many hits and comments,” she said.
Later that morning, Salat had access to the internet and was able to conduct some research of her own, which led to the same conclusion as Hampton and numerous social media commenters. He said observing the weird phenomenon initially was more satisfying than concluding the enigma.
“The spiral, it was so perfect. It was beautiful. It was kind of a shame to think of it as exhaust, I have to admit,” he said. “I did enjoy that mystery, and the unknown, because after I found out what it was, I noticed that the wonder of it all kind of faded a little bit.”