SpaceX Swirl
Todd Salat

A photographer out capturing the aurora lights over Alaska on Saturday night was dumbfounded when a giant blue spiral appeared above him.

Seasoned aurora hunter Todd Salat says that while shooting, he spotted a “real bright light” coming from the northern horizon over the Delta Junction in Alaska.

“I thought, what the heck is that?!” he tells PetaPixel. “I started taking pictures of it and as it came closer, the spiral shape became more and more prominent.”

SpaceX Swirl
Todd Salat

Salat says the object began growing in size and was upon him in minutes. The photographer was “totally clueless” about what it was but had his Nikon D850 set up on a tripod to capture the phenomenon above Donnely Dome.

“This was the composition I’d been photographing for two nights, hoping to score something special,” he explains. “Wow, I did not see this coming and could not have planned it better if I tried.”

What was the Mysterious Spiral Over Alaska?

Salat did not immediately realize that he was witnessing a “SpaceX Spiral.” As noted by SpaceWeather, three hours earlier SpaceX launched 51 small satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base some 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) away.

An all-sky camera at the University of Alaska’s Poker Flat Research Range also captured the strange whirlpool on Saturday evening.

SpaceX rockets are designed to land back on Earth but the second stage of the Falcon 9 does not parachute down to the ground. Instead, it burns up in the atmosphere but before doing so it vents its unused fuel which will often take the form of a stunning spiral.

“The first stage Falcon rocket quickly took the payload of 51 satellites to orbit, detached, and returned to base,” explains Salat.

“The second stage, with a single Merlin engine, deployed the satellites within the first hour. The second stage engine sailed around our plant, now empty of cargo, and three hours later it came over Alaska.

“I believe the unique shape is from excess fuel it had jettisoned, causing it to spiral, so it could deorbit and eventually splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

“It’s my understanding that frozen water vapor in the fuel emissions gets illuminated a bluish-white color by high-altitude sunlight and voilà, spiral art in the sky.”

SpaceX Map
Map showing the Falcon 9’s launchpad from Vandenberg Space Base and where Salat spotted the SpaceX Swirl 3,000 miles away near Donnelly Dome Alaska.

“It’s wild and fun to think it might be a portal or aliens, and I’ve heard my share of conspiracy theories, but I believe it can most easily be explained as ‘rocket science’,” Salat continues.

“I will say I loved the wonderment of not knowing what it was. The auroras kept on dancing so it was hours before I had time to research and try figuring out this unique phenomenon I had witnessed.

“Those were the best hours of blissful bewilderment.”

While most people are unaware of the phenomenon, it is increasingly becoming more common with a spiral spotted over Hawaii in January.

More of Salat’s work can be seen by visiting his website Aurora Hunter. He also has a Facebook page.


Image credits: All photos by Todd Salat.

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