Although a mesmerizing view of the night sky put the spectators amazed. New Zealand stargazers were left puzzled and awed by strange, spiralling light formations in the night sky on Sunday night. An unusual, spiralling plume of gas and light across the night sky from Nelson all the way to Stewart Island has left sky watchers speculating, but experts say there’s a very simple explanation. South Island residents in large numbers took to social media and tip lines on Sunday night to report seeing the eye-catching phenomenon. The unusual apparition has led to much confusion over its cause, with some speculating whether it was an astronomical phenomenon – or even whether it had extraterrestrial origins.
Among them was Alasdair Burns, 34, who runs a star-gazing business on Stewart Island. He said it was by far the strangest thing he’d seen in the night sky. “It was absolutely bizarre. It was like a massive spiral. And it very, very slowly, serenely moving north across the night sky and then just sort of dissipating as it went,” he said.
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.
But Richard Easther, a physics professor at the University of Auckland, said spiral was really the illuminated plume of a rocket. “They are ‘clouds’ created by the exhaust plumes of the rocket, which would have been illuminated by the sun,” he said.“It’s similar to the effect you sometimes see at sunset when the setting sun lights up the underside of high clouds.”The spiral appeared in the sky at around 7.20 pm and was quickly posted in star-gazing social media groups.
According to spaceflightnow.com, SpaceX made three launches on Friday, Saturday and Sunday – the last one a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Globalstar FM15 satellite. After releasing its payload, the upper stage of the rocket spins and vents fuel – and this vapour trail then reflects the sunlight, creating the highly-visible swirl visible from the ground.
“The ‘spiral’ that was seen in the sky tonight around 7:30 pm was most likely a fuel dump from a SpaceX rocket launch,” the New Plymouth Astronomical Society posted to Facebook. “Similar effects have been seen before, and SpaceX’s Globalstar 2 FM15 was likely to have passed New Zealand around that time.”Regardless of the cause, it’s an amazing sight that has Kiwis talking.