New Zealand star watchers were left confused and amazed by the strange, spiraling light formations in the night sky on Sunday night.
At around 7.25 pm, Alasdair Burns, a guide to observing the stars on Stuart / Rakiura Island, received a message from a friend: go outside and look at the sky. “As soon as we actually went outside, it was obvious what he meant,” Burns said.
He saw a huge, blue spiral of light in the middle of the darkness. “It looked like a huge spiral galaxy, just hanging there in the sky, and slowly just floating,” Burns said. “Pretty creepy feeling.”
Burns took several pictures of the light on a long exposure, grabbing a spiral from his phone. “We quickly knocked on the doors of all our neighbors to get them out. And so there were five of us, all on our common porch looking up and just a little, well, we went a little crazy.
Social media groups for stargazing and amateur astronomy in the country were ignited by people asking photos and questions about the phenomenon, which was visible from much of the South Island. There were many theories – from UFOs to foreign missiles to commercial light displays.
“A premonition from our orbital black hole,” said one observer of the stars. “Aliens again,” commented another.
The reality was probably a little more prosaic, said Professor Richard Easter, a physicist at the University of Auckland, who called the phenomenon “strange but easy to explain.”
Clouds of this nature sometimes appeared when the rocket carried the satellite into orbit, he said.
“When the propellant is thrown out in the back, you have what is essentially water and carbon dioxide – which briefly form a cloud in the sunlit universe,” Ister said. “The geometry of the satellite’s orbit, as well as the way we sit in relation to the sun – that combination of things was accurate to produce these completely wacky clouds that were visible from the South Island.”
Ister said that the rocket was probably the launch of Globalstar from SpaceX, which the company sent into low orbit around Cape Canaveral in Florida on Sunday.
Burns assumed that the spiral was probably a rocket, reading about a similar phenomenon in 2009, when the launch of a Russian rocket caused huge blue spirals over Norway. Even knowing the probable source, he said, it was the opposite scene. “None of us has ever seen anything like it before. It was spectacular. ”
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