SpaceX rocket creates eerie blue spiral in night sky over Hawaii: reports

A navigation satellite launched by SpaceX left a brief spiral visible over Hawaii, according to reports.

SpaceX sent a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) into space for the U.S. Space Force on Wednesday (Jan. 18) at 7:24 a.m. EST (1224 GMT). Shortly afterwards, the Subaru Telescope spotted a mesmerizing spiral shape overhead.

"The spiral seems to be related to the SpaceX company's launch of a new satellite," Subaru Telescope (opens in new tab) officials from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan wrote in a tweet (opens in new tab). The missive also showcased an image of the spiral over their telescope atop Maunakea on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Citizen scientist and satellite tracker Scott Tilley, chiming in (opens in new tab) on the thread, said the position of the spiral was a close match for where the second stage Falcon 9 rocket was expected to be in the minutes after launch. (The first stage returned to Earth on a drone ship at sea.)

Related: 8 ways SpaceX has transformed spaceflight forever

An eerie blue spiral seen over Hawaii following a SpaceX launch on Wednesday (Jan. 18). (Image credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan)
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It's far from the first time a similar glowing, circular feature was spotted after a SpaceX launch. People in locations as distant as New Zealand have seen such spirals overhead after Falcon 9 activity.

A zoomed-in view of the blue sky spiral over Hawaii on Jan. 18, 2023. (Image credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan)

During past appearances of the spiral, space watchers have said the shape arises as the upper stage of the Falcon 9 vents unneeded fuel during its long descent into the ocean. 

"The upper stage was probably spinning on its longest axis to stabilize flight orientation, hence the spiral shape," Spaceweather.com wrote (opens in new tab) of a June 2022 launch. "Similar spirals have been seen after previous Falcon 9 launches."

Related: What's that in the sky? It's a SpaceX rocket, but it sure doesn't look like it

The Falcon 9 is known to leave behind many interesting patterns post-launch, such as "space jellyfish" in the predawn sky over Florida's Space Coast.

Those shapes happen when gas in the rocket engine's nozzles are at higher pressure than the atmosphere, and the gas is illuminated by sunlight, according to a past tweet (opens in new tab) from Chris Combs, a professor of aerodynamics and mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

SpaceX has sent five missions to space in the first 19 days of 2023. If they keep up this pace, the company would send 96 rockets aloft by the time the year closes, but weather and technical factors can always induce delays. In 2022, SpaceX had a record-setting 61 launches, nearly doubling its 2021 record of 31 liftoffs.

Editor's note: If you captured a stunning view of a SpaceX launch and want to share it for an image gallery or story, let us know! You can send images and comments in to spacephotos@space.com.

 Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

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. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace