Spirals of blue light in New Zealand’s night sky leave astronomers ‘a bit panicked’ | New Zealand

New Zealand astronomers were left puzzled and awestruck by strange spiraling light formations in the night sky on Sunday evening.

Around 7:25 p.m., Alasdair Burns, a stargazing guide on Stewart/Rakiura Island, received a text from a friend: Get out and look at the sky. “As soon as we walked out, it was very obvious what he was referring to,” Burns said.

He saw a huge blue spiral of light in the middle of the darkness. “It looked like a huge spiral galaxy, hanging there in the sky and slowly drifting through it,” Burns said. “A rather strange feeling.”

Burns took a few long exposure images of the lights, capturing the spiral from his phone. “We quickly knocked on the doors of all our neighbors to get them out as well. And so there were about five of us, all outside on our shared veranda, looking up and kind of, well, freaking out a little bit.

The country’s stargazing and amateur astronomy social media groups lit up with people posting photos and questions about the phenomenon, which was visible from most of the South Island. Theories abounded – from UFOs to alien rockets to commercial light displays.

“Premonition of our orbital black hole,” said an astronomer. “Aliens start again,” another commented.

The reality was probably a little more prosaic, said Professor Richard Easther, a physicist at the University of Auckland, who called the phenomenon “strange but easy to explain”.

Clouds of this nature sometimes occurred when a rocket carried a satellite into orbit, he said.

“When the propellant is ejected out the back, you have what is essentially water and carbon dioxide — which briefly forms a cloud in space that is illuminated by the sun,” 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 perfect for producing these completely wacky clouds that were visible from the South Island.”

Easther said the rocket in question was likely Globalstar’s launch from SpaceX, which the company sent to low Earth orbit off Cape Canaveral in Florida on Sunday.

Burns had guessed the spiral was likely a rocket, after reading about a similar phenomenon in 2009, when a Russian missile launch caused huge blue spirals over Norway. Even knowing the likely source, he said, it was a show of confrontation. “None of us had ever seen anything like it before. It was spectacular.

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