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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. (Image credit: Subaru Telescope)
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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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab) 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.

Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a regular contributor to Live Science and Space.com, along with several other science publications. She is one of a handful of Canadian reporters who specializes in space reporting. Elizabeth has a Bachelor of Journalism, Science Concentration at Carleton University (Canada) and an M.Sc. Space Studies (distance) at the University of North Dakota. Elizabeth became a full-time freelancer after earning her M.Sc. in 2012. She reported on three space shuttle launches in person and once spent two weeks in an isolated Utah facility pretending to be a Martian.