A skilled aurora enthusiast named Todd Salat, who was photographing the aurora lights in Alaska on a Saturday night, was astonished when a massive blue spiral unexpectedly appeared in the sky above him. As he was taking photos, he noticed a very bright light emerging from the northern horizon near Delta Junction, 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.”
Curious about the unusual sight, he captured pictures of it, and as it approached, the spiral shape became increasingly distinct.
“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.”
Salat was unaware at the time that he was witnessing a phenomenon known as the “SpaceX Spiral.” According to SpaceWeather, about three hours before this, SpaceX had launched 51 small satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, which was approximately 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) away from his location.
SpaceX rockets are engineered with the capability to return to Earth, but the second stage of the Falcon 9 does not have a parachuting mechanism. Instead, it re-enters the atmosphere and incinerates, but not before releasing its remaining unused fuel. This leftover fuel often creates a mesmerizing spiral pattern in the sky.