Late last month, a bright and glowing orb streaked across the Alaskan sky, interrupting a view of the northern lights. The spinning blue circle was captured by aurora cameras and scientists think they’ve isolated what the mystery object was.
A Bright Ball of Spinning Light
The object appeared in the night sky over Alaska in the early morning hours of March 29. Eyewitnesses across the state reported seeing the bright orb and cited somethiing “spinning inside it,” Live Science reports.
Fairbanks photographer Leslie Smallwood says the ball of light appeared much larger than the moon in the sky and moved from northeast to southwest over the course of a few minutes.
“It seemed like it had something that was spinning inside it when I zoomed in on it,” he tells KTOO News in Fairbanks. “And it’s a small tail — whitish tail. It’s not like it shot across the sky. It was like, taking its time.”
An automatic aurora-focused camera trap operated by husband and wife team Ronn Murray and Marketa Murray of The Aurora Chasers captured the giant ball. Their camera system takes photos of the sky at intervals of about 45 seconds all the time so that anyone can visit their site and enjoy the aurora. This time, the camera didn’t just snap photos of the green-blue atmospheric phenomenon, but six images of the orb as it streaked across the sky.
The Aurora Chasers provided PetaPixel with the below animation that shows the object moving across the sky:
The object sparked debate as to its origin and nature in the northernmost state, but scientists think they know exactly what the mysterious orb was: a piece of a Chinese rocket.
Chinese Rocket Stage Releasing its Leftover Fuel
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston, Massachusetts, says that the timing of the orb’s sightings in Alaska corresponded with the flight of a Chinese rocket that was carrying a satellite, KTOO reports.
“I am very confident that what people saw was the dumping of fuel from a Chinese rocket stage,” he says.
“This rocket — the Longmarch 6A or Chang Zheng 6A — was launched early on March 29 from China, placed two satellites in orbit and, calculating its orbital path, it passed over the Yukon area about 350 miles up at exactly the time that this glow was seen in the Alaskan sky.”
McDowell says that the size of the orb can likely be attributed to the rocket expelling spent fuel into space, which immediately froze and spread out, which then reflected sunlight, which made it appear as though it were glowing to observers on the ground.
“This cloud is probably hundreds of miles across, that’s why it looks so big,” he tells KTOO.
He also was able to explain why observers report seeing something spinning in the center of the orb: in order to maintain its orbit during the release of excess fuel, the rocket enters a tumble.
“End over end while spewing out this fuel like a garden hose, and so you’ll get this sort of moving pattern,” he explains.
This kind of phenomenon isn’t unique, it’s just more common farther south and its intersection with the aurora borealis is even more uncommon. That said a similar orb was described over Siberia in 2017 and was attributed to exhaust from a ballistic missile test.
Image credits: All photos provided courtesy of Ronn and Marketa Murray from The Aurora Chasers.