Mysterious blue spirals were seen by dozens in the skies of New Zealand, causing speculation that they were anything from “stargates” to alien spacecraft – but while looking very otherworldly, what they really were was an explainable phenomenon.
The spiral whirls first appeared in the sky on the evening of June 12 at around 7.25 pm. Alasdair Burns, a professional “stargazing guide” on Stewart Island/Rakiura, received a text from a friend saying, “go outside and look at the sky.”
“As soon as we actually went outside, it was very obvious what it was he was referring to,” Burns said.
Burns and many others saw a huge, blue spiral of light amid the darkness.
“It looked like an enormous spiral galaxy, just hanging there in the sky, and slowly just drifting across,” Burns said. “Quite an eerie feeling.”
Burns snapped a few images of the lights on long exposure, capturing the spiral from his phone. “We quickly banged on the doors of all our neighbors to get them out as well. And so there were about five of us, all out on our shared veranda looking up and just kind of, well, freaking out just a little bit.”
The country’s stargazing and amateur astronomy social media groups lit up with people posting photographs and questions about the phenomenon, which was visible from most of the South Island. Theories abounded – from UFOs to foreign rockets to commercial light displays, to “black holes” and “interdimensional portals.”
But, what the bizarre-looking spiral in the sky actually was had a scientific, albeit “spaceship-related” explanation.
Professor Richard Easther, a physicist at Auckland University, called the phenomenon “weird but easily explained.”
Clouds of that nature often occur when a rocket carries a satellite into orbit, he said.
“When the propellant is ejected out the back, you have what’s essentially water and carbon dioxide – that briefly forms a cloud in space that’s illuminated by the sun,” Easther said. “The geometry of the satellite’s orbit and also the way that we’re sitting relative to the sun – that combination of things was just right to produce these completely wacky-looking clouds that were visible from the South Island.”
Easther said the rocket in question was likely the Globalstar launch from SpaceX, which the company sent into low-earth orbit off Cape Canaveral in Florida on Sunday.
Burns had guessed the spiral was likely a rocket, having read 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 confronting sight.
“None of us had ever seen anything like that before. It was spectacular.”