Maunakea telescope finds mysterious green laser lights, blue swirl over Hawaiʻi Island
February 5, 2023, 5:00 AM HST
Hawai‘i, a dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, has some of the darkest night skies in the world.
With limited light pollution, the islands gets a front row seat for gazing into the vastness of space — and wondering what’s out there. Imaginations can run wild, and two recent celestial spectacles appearing in Hawai‘i skies didn’t disappoint.
Some described it as “mysterious whirlpool.” One news outlet called it “eerie.” Theories floated by the public were priceless when it came to a flying blue spiral spotted in mid-January by the Subaru Telescope atop Maunakea on the Big Island.
“Hey @elonmus, this you or aliens?” someone asked in replying to a tweet about the phenomenon by the 8.2-meter optical-infrared telescope operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences. There were a lot of Elon Musk jokes.
“Guess [V]oltron’s real,” another tweeter replied, referring to the super robot main character of a 1980s cartoon series.
Other commenters on various social media platforms also had their guesses.
Some conjectured it was the wormhole from the Star Trek TV series “Deep Space Nine.” Someone else thought it might be Matthew McConaughey returning from filming “Interstellar 2,” even though there aren’t any reported plans for a sequel to the 2014 sci-fi epic. A few people said it was Goku from the “Dragon Ball” anime and manga series with a spirit bomb.
The real culprit behind the swirling blue mass captured in video by the ultra-high sensitivity Subaru-Asahi Star Camera that appeared almost as quickly as it disappeared in the early morning hours of Jan. 18 is interesting, and has a connection to Musk, but not as fantastical as some might want to believe. It also has an Earth-based origin.
Some enthusiastic viewers of the livestream camera that canvasses the sky over Maunakea’s summit region 24/7 discovered the spiral. It first looked like a small blue dot in the eastern sky and then expanded to form a spinning mass that looked like a bright blue spiral galaxy with light emanating from its center before fading and disappearing about 15 minutes later.
“The spiral could be bright enough to see with a human eye, reflecting the sunlight; however, the camera captured it very clearly with higher sensitivity,” said Subaru’s senior support astronomer Ichi Tanaka. “In addition, the dark sky of Maunakea enhanced the spiral’s detailed structure.”
Through chat discussions and social media, the swirling disc was soon found to be related to a satellite orbital deployment operation by SpaceX. The spacecraft manufacturer and satellite communications corporation owned by Musk launched a navigation satellite for the U.S. Space Force into medium Earth orbit that day from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on one of its Falcon 9 rockets.
The launch happened at 7:24 a.m. Eastern Standard Time — 2:24 a.m. Hawai‘i time — and the blue spiral was observed a short time later by the camera jointly operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and Japanese newspaper company Asahi Shimbun.
Scott Tilley, an amateur astronomer and citizen satellite tracker, tweeted in reply to the Subaru Telescope tweet about the blue spiral that it was likely the fuel vent from the rocket’s second stage that created the phenomenon. A reply to Subaru’s YouTube video of the swirling mass by Hydrocarbon82 provided corroboration.
“Specifically this was the ‘burn’ of the maneuvering thrusters to put a centrifugal spin on the craft+payload to ‘fling’ the satellite away from the upper stage instead of use of precious fuel. The initial glowing would have been the last final tiny course correction bursts in multiple directions, creating expanding shell and waves of nitrogen gas,” Hydrocarbon82 said. “It did indeed release its payload over the eastern Pacific, and the launch video shows it spinning slowly in the sunlight when it did. Its last main engine burn was a 15 [minutes] previous to deploying so it had to have induced that spin somewhere visible to Hawai‘i.”
It isn’t the first time a Falcon 9 launch caused such a stir. A mysterious space swirl was also spotted above New Zealand in June last year on the same day as another SpaceX launch from Cape Canaveral. And Subaru said this was the second spiral above Hawai‘i documented by the Subaru-Asahi Star Camera; the first was recorded in the early morning of April 17, 2022.
“Space communities online have suggested that the spirals — and other formations, like the ‘space jellyfish’ — occur when rockets vent their leftover fuel,” according to an NPR story. “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.”
The Star Camera at the Subaru Telescope captured another unusual, and rare, event just last weekend, this time a green laser light show that one person on YouTube thought might be aliens repairing the Earth’s ozone layer. Another commenter said “TRON” approved, referencing the 1982 sci-fi adventure starring Jeff Bridges.
“Yeah, anyone that doesn’t believe we live in the matrix, take a look at this,” another comment on YouTube said. There were several references to “The Matrix,” the elaborate illusionary world created by an evil cyber-intelligence to enslave humanity in the Warner Bros. film starring Keanu Reeves.
This time, the origin of the oddity was in space, but it was being used to measure Earth features.
The early morning of Jan. 28 was cloudy on Maunakea, but the Subaru-Asahi Star Camera was able to see green laser lights coming from the sky: “It was only a second or less, but our keen viewers did not miss the event!” the telescope said in the description of its YouTube video featuring the laser show.
Viewers reported later that the lights were from a remote-sensing laser, an altimeter called ATLAS, an acronym for Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, aboard NASA’s ICESat-2/43613 satellite. The altimeter’s primary intent is to measure elevations in the Earth’s cryosphere, regions that include snow, sea ice, lake and river ice, icebergs, glaciers and ice caps, among other frozen terrain and solid precipitation. The instrument also can measure elevations of forest cover and vegetation. It’s even able to detect water features including coral reefs and ocean waves.
The ATLAS sends laser pulses to the ground from the satellite and records how long it takes for the light to return in order to take its measurements. That’s what the Star Camera captured. The team at Subaru was glad the camera’s viewers spotted the show.
“What a great people,” the team wrote on YouTube. “We really appreciate their great contribution to catching such a rare view!”
So there you have it. Two extraterrestrial events with terrestrial explanations. But hey, you’re never going to convince everyone.
“Statistically it’s ludicrous to think we are the only ones out in the whole universe that contains billions of galaxies,” a commenter on Facebook said. “NOPE! Not buying it. But I ain’t got no proof! ALIENS.”