New Zealand astronomers were startled by strange spiraling light formations in the night sky on Sunday evening. The photos have been widely shared on social media, with many New Zealanders comparing them to some sort of ‘wormhole’. But experts said the “wacky clouds” were caused by the Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Globalstar DM15 satellite.
The extraordinary sight was first captured by residents of Nelson, a town in New Zealand’s North Island, and was visible 750km south of Stewart Island.
“Does anyone know if there was a satellite orbiting over New Zealand tonight or possibly an Australian satellite, saw something like the image I posted around 7.20pm tonight looking slightly west at high altitude Rangiora Canterbury,” Facebook user Inch Justin told Astronomy in New Zealand.
“The photo I posted is just an example of what I saw. I didn’t manage to take a picture of it, I just grabbed my binoculars and looked at what appeared to be a satellite in the middle of the spiral heading north at a breakneck pace of knots,” the user added.
Users flooded the group with comments. “Yes, several of us saw it from Hawke’s Bay, near the tail of Canis major, then moving northeast,” one user commented.
“That’s really cool,” said another.
Professor Richard Easther, a physicist at the University of Auckland, explained the reason for this phenomenon. Clouds of this nature sometimes occurred when a rocket carried a satellite into orbit, he said. The Guardian.
“When the propellant is ejected out the back, you have what is essentially water and carbon dioxide – which briefly forms a cloud in sunlit space,” Prof Easther said. “The geometry of the satellite’s orbit and also the way we sit in relation to the sun – that combination of things was just to produce these completely goofy clouds that were visible from the South Island.”
The New Plymouth Astronomical Society said on Facebook that it was “most likely a ‘fuel spill’ or ‘exhaust plume’ from a SpaceX rocket launch”, as similar effects have occurred. already been observed.
According to Professor Easther, the rocket in question was the Falcon 9, which SpaceX used on Sunday to send a satellite into low Earth orbit.
SpaceX chief Elon Musk praised the Falcon team for the launches. “Congratulations to the SpaceX Falcon team for executing 3 flawless launches in 2 days!” he said on Twitter.