Hawaii News

Eerie green laser light show over Big Island volcano likely a Chinese satellite

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This story was updated at 9:16 a.m. Feb. 12.

At first, the origin of an eerie green laser light show captured two weeks ago by a Japanese-operated telescope atop the Big island’s 13,803-foot Maunakea seemed to be rather innocuous.

A green laser show was captured in the early morning of Jan. 28 by the Subaru-Asahi Star Camera at the Subaru Telescope atop Maunakea. Credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and Asahi Shimbun.

Viewers who spotted the lights reported they likely were being emitted by a remote-sensing laser aboard a NASA satellite used to map and measure the Earth’s surface, keeping track of sea ice, snow cover and forest cover, among other terrain. It’s even able to detect water features such as coral reefs and ocean waves.

Pretty cool, right?

Now the source of the beams that formed a green curtain — which some described as resembling the green code from the movie “The Matrix” — likely is from a satellite owned by U.S. adversary China and not by NASA.

That is according to a Feb. 6 correction to the description attached to the video of the light show, which was captured by the Subaru Telescope — an 8.2-meter optical-infrared telescope operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences.


Dr. Anthony J Martino, a NASA scientist working on the satellite ICESat-2 ATLAS, said the green lasers — which lasted for only about a second — were not caused by their instrument, but by others.

Dr. Alvaro Ivanoff and other colleagues conducted a simulation of the trajectory of satellites that have a similar instrument and found a most likely candidate as the aerosol and carbon dioxide detection lidar, or ACDL, instrument on the Chinese Daqi-1/AEMS satellite. Lidar, or laser imaging, detection and ranging, works somewhat like sonar, but instead of using sound waves to map an area, it uses laser beams.

“We really appreciate their efforts in the identification of the light. We are sorry about our confusion related to this event and its potential impact on the ICESat-2 team,” said the correction.

Daqi-1 was launched last year and monitors fine particulates in the air, including gases such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and ozone, as well as carbon dioxide concentration, according to a March 2021 press release from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. It is the first in a series of satellites that will observe atmospheric pollution, provide remote sensing data and support global climate change research.

The new revelation comes on the heels of the United States on Feb. 4 shooting down what the Pentagon called a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina. China denies that the balloon was being used for surveillance. It floated over the mainland United States and portions of Canada for a week before it was taken down.


On Friday, a U.S. fighter jet shot down another aircraft, this time an unidentified object about the size of a small car that was flying over Alaska. The Pentagon said the UFO was flying at about 40,000 feet in a northeasterly direction, posing a risk to civilian air traffic. It was first detected Thursday by ground radar.

Another unidentified cylindrical object was shot down by a U.S. fighter jet Saturday over the northern Yukon territory in Canada. The U.S. military also scrambled fighter jets to investigate a radar anomaly that triggered a short closure of airspace over Montana.

Like the original news of the green lasers, the update about their source spurred speculation. This time, though, much of it was somewhat more nefarious because of the Chinese balloon and unidentified object.

Credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and Asahi Shimbun.

“WHAT? Scary,” Connie Borton wrote in a Friday morning post to members of a Big Island Facebook group, sharing a story from Vice about the new information surrounding the laser show.

“Laser mapping of terrain, potentially for electromagnetic pulse radiation warfare to disrupt electrical communications, technologies and more,” a commenter replied to Borton’s post. “EMP weapons are being tested globally. Do your research humans. The time of World War 3 is upon us and the target is psychological, biological and electromagnetic.”


A person commenting on Subaru’s YouTube video wondered if the green lasers were a test of technology for the future deployment of something far more powerful. Another said they were from a “geo scanner” looking for strategic targets. Some got even darker.

“They are preparing for nuclear war,” one YouTube commenter said.

Another person commenting on YouTube even suggested there was a more Hawai’i-specific reason for the laser show: “They’re probably trying to make the volcano erupt.”

Not everyone was so bleak, however; there were still many more lighthearted responses.

“That’s the loading wall for the MMO we’re all stuck in,” one YouTube commenter said, referencing an invisible point in a massively multiplayer online game, such as “World of Warcraft,” that a player cannot pass.

Another added, referring to the main villain in the “Austin Powers” films starring Mike Myers: “Dr. Evil must have [been] flying space sharks with FRIKIN LASER BEAMS.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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