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Shimmering 'night spiral' captured above Hawaii is actually a dying SpaceX rocket

The Subaru Telescope captured video of a mysterious, glowing swirl above Hawaii on April 17, 2022.
The Subaru Telescope captured video of a mysterious, glowing swirl above Hawaii on April 17, 2022. (Image credit: Subaru Telescope)

A dying SpaceX rocket stage generated a strange and stunning "night spiral" over Hawaii.

The Subaru Telescope captured a video of the "flying whirlpool," as SpaceWeather.com (opens in new tab) termed it, on Sunday (April 17) near Mauna Kea, hours after a California-based Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched a spy satellite into orbit.

SpaceX launched the spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The Falcon 9 rocket was capped by a NROL-85 spacecraft, which lifted off at 9:13 a.m. EDT (13:13 GMT) from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California; the activity and payload of the spacecraft were classified. 

The video "shows the characteristic spiral caused by the post-deorbit-burn fuel vent of the Falcon 9 upper stage, which was deorbited over the Pacific [Ocean] just after the end of the 1st revolution," Netherlands-based satellite tracker Marco Langbroek told SpaceWeather.com.  

Langbroek closely watches SpaceX launches and has created stunning footage of his own that shows deploying Starlink satellites, which are used for broadband services in remote areas.

The first stage of the Falcon 9 booster is reusable, and it landed successfully atop a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean, according to SpaceX footage (opens in new tab). The upper stage of Falcon 9 is not reusable, and after sending the spacecraft out to its assigned orbit, that stage fell back naturally in the atmosphere to burn up.

The Subaru Telescope is an 8.2-meter optical-infrared telescope located in Hawaii and operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. The facility operates at 13,579 feet (4,139 meters) in altitude. 

Due to the difficulties of working in such thin atmosphere, most of Subaru's staff works remotely and only a handful of folks stay on site to operate the telescope, according to the facility website (opens in new tab).

The Subaru-Asahi Sky Camera, which captured the footage, is an outreach camera project in collaboration with the Asahi-Shimbun, a large Japanese newspaper. The project started in 2021 to livestream the night sky, Subaru stated (opens in new tab) in a press release about the project.

Article originally published on LiveScience. (opens in new tab)

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.