Hawaii: Subaru Telescope captures 'spiral' over Mauna Kea
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A bizarre-looking “whirlpool” that appeared in the night sky over Hawaii a fortnight ago was caused by a rocket launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, astronomers have said. The phenomenon, which resembled a spiral galaxy, was captured by a telescope at the Mauna Kea Summit Observatories in the small hours the morning of January 18. The strange vortex was seen to move across the night sky for around an hour, gradually dissipating as it did so.
Footage of the whirlpool was captured by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s Subaru Telescope, which is based at the Hawaiian observatory complex.
A spokesperson for the telescope said: “On Jan 18, 2023, the Subaru-Asahi Star Camera captured a mysterious flying spiral over Mauna kea, Hawai’i.
“It was really an unusual view. At first it was just a small dot at the left centre of the view. Then it ejected an arc-like feature.
“It became slightly larger — a bright dot appeared in the blob, then it grew into a spiral.”
The spokesperson continued: “Earlier that day, SpaceX launched a satellite into a medium-Earth orbit.
“We believe that this phenomenon is related to its orbital deployment operation.”
Specifically, it is suspected that the whirlpool was formed of frozen rocket fuel that was ejected from part of the SpaceX rocket as it fell back to Earth — with the crystals catching sunlight.
The Falcon 9 rocket had been dispatched from the Cape Canaveral launch facility in Florida earlier that night carrying a GPS satellite for the US Space Force.
According to astronomer Dr Tony Phillips of spaceweather.com: “SpaceX spirals are becoming commonplace over the Pacific, where Falcon 9 rocket stages are often deorbited.
“They are created by plumes of unused fuel venting from the rocket’s spinning second stage, before they plunge into the ocean.”
On Twitter, Mario Billiani (@_starbase_) noted that similar phenomena have been seen with other launches.
In 2009, for example, a spiral of light was seen over Norway — and was believed to have been caused by an out-of-control test launch of a “Bulava” submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile deployed from the White Sea.
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While the mystery seems to have been solved quite quickly, such did not stop Twitter users having a little fun suggesting wacky explanations for the strange whirlpool.
One David Knowles, for example, tweeted: “The Tesla that Elon Musk launched has finally launched the new and improved Insanity Mode.”
JG, meanwhile, quipped that “this is Matthew McConaughey returning from his space trip during the filming of Interstellar 2”.
Others compared the phenomena to the Bajoran Wormhole from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and the portals used by the titular characters in the animated sci-fi series Rick & Morty.
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