Hawaii residents and visitors alike witnessed an incredible — and eerie — phenomenon in the night sky in mid-January. On Jan. 18, a ghostly blue whirlpool lit up in the night sky, catching the attention of Hawaiians and scientists all over the globe. Here’s what you need to know.
"The Subaru-Asahi Star Camera captured a mysterious flying spiral over Maunakea, Hawaii," Subaru Telescope tweeted. Although it looks a little scary and otherworldly, astronomers say it’s something they’ve actually seen before, which does provide some relief.
Can you explain what this sky whirlpool is about like I’m 5?
According to a tweet sent by the National Astronomical Observatory in Japan, the whirlpool was captured by the Subaru Telescope, which is mounted atop the dormant volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
“In the video, the object starts as a small white sphere flying through the night sky,” NPR explains. “It then widens into a spiral as it travels before fading into a ring shape and disappearing.”
But where did this whirlpool come from? Astronomers say it showed up after SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket in Florida carrying a military satellite for the U.S. Space Force. The rocket launch happened in Cape Canaveral, Florida, but the swirl seen in Hawaii matched where the rocket's second stage was — in which the payload of the rocket gets delivered to orbit — when it was spotted in the sky.
This isn’t the first time astronomers have spotted a whirlpool in the sky. According to NPR, a similar swirl was spotted in June 2022 in New Zealand, matching up with another Falcon 9 launch. There was another spotting in April last year, again in Hawaii, which coincided with a Falcon 9 launch.
“Space communities online have suggested that the spirals — and other formations, like the ‘space jellyfish’ — occur when rockets vent their leftover fuel,” NPR explains. “The gas is expelled at a higher pressure than the atmosphere. It is then illuminated by sunlight, creating the shapes we see from down below.”