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A BLUE SPIRAL OVER ALASKA

NOAA - April 2023

 

Longtime aurora hunter Todd Salat is no stranger to fantastic displays in the night skies of Alaska. But even he was not prepared for what happened after local midnight on Saturday, April 15th. 

"I was utterly surprised and mystified when I first spotted a distant bright light coming toward me from the northern horizon," says Salat. "At first I thought it was a jet airliner flying through some clouds. Then it took on the spiral shape and grew big fast!" This is what he saw:

 

"I was shooting frantically with two camera/tripod set-ups knowing that this was a unique event and within about seven minutes the 'apparition' swept by and disappeared.  It was spellbinding!  For the past two nights I had been photographing auroras over this dome (Donnelly Dome) and hoping to catch something special. I got my wish!"

Salat witnessed a "SpaceX spiral." Three hours earlier (Saturday, April 15th at 0648 UT), SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from California's Vandenberg Space Force Base. It carried 51 small satellites to Earth-orbit, a mission known as Transporter-7. When the rocket's discarded upper stage passed over Alaska, it vented its unused fuel. A bit of spin turned the harmless cloud into a spectacular spiral.

As strange and rare as it appears, the spiral is a routine by-product of SpaceX operations. Similar blue swirls have been seen after many Falcon 9 launches including this one over New Zealandanother over east Africa, and two more above Hawaii. One may be coming soon to a sky near you.

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