The stargazers in New Zealand were surprised by strange, spiral light formations in the night sky on Sunday night. The photos were shared a lot on social media, with many New Zealanders comparing them to a kind of “wormhole”. But experts said these “brittle clouds” were caused by the Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Globalstar DM15 satellite.
The extraordinary sight was first captured by the inhabitants of Nelson, a town on New Zealand’s north island, and was visible 750 km south of Stewart Island.
“Does anyone know if it was a satellite orbiting NZ tonight or maybe an Australian satellite, so something like the picture I posted around 1920 tonight and looking a little west at a high altitude Rangiora Canterbury,” wrote Facebook user Inch Justin in Astronomy in the New Zealand group.
“The picture I posted is just an example of what I saw. Could not get a picture of it, just grabbed my binos and looked at what appeared to be a satellite in the middle of the spiral on its way north in large speed of knots, “the user continued.
Users flooded the group with comments. “Yes, several of us saw it from Hawke’s Bay, near the tail of Canis Major, and then moved northeast,” commented one user.
“It’s definitely cool,” said another.
Prof Richard Easther, a physicist at Auckland University, explained the cause of the phenomenon. Clouds of that kind sometimes occurred when a rocket carried a satellite into orbit, he said Vergen.
“When the fuel is thrown out the back, you have what is mainly water and carbon dioxide – which in a short time forms a cloud in space that is illuminated by the sun,” said Professor Easther. “The geometry of the satellite’s orbit and also the way we sit in relation to the sun – that combination of things was just right to produce these completely crazy clouds that were visible from Sørøya.”
The New Plymouth Astronomical Society said on Facebook that it was most likely a “fuel dump” or “exhaust flush” from a SpaceX rocket launch, as similar effects have been seen before.
According to Professor Easther, the rocket in question was the Falcon 9, which SpaceX used to launch a low-orbit satellite around the earth on Sunday.
SpaceX chief Elon Musk congratulated the Falcon team on the launches. “Congratulations to the SpaceX Falcon team for completing 3 flawless launches in 2 days!” he said on Twitter.