A strange spiral appears amidst the Northern Lights in the Alaskan night sky

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Northern Lights enthusiasts got a surprise mixed with the green bands of light dancing across the Alaskan sky: A light baby blue spiral resembling a galaxy appeared for several minutes amidst the aurora.

The cause early Saturday morning was a little more mundane than an alien invasion or the appearance of a portal to the far reaches of the universe. It was simply excess fuel released by a SpaceX rocket launched from California about three hours before the spiral appeared.

Sometimes rockets have fuel that needs to be jettisoned, said space physicist Don Hampton, a research associate at the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.

“When they do that at high altitudes, that fuel turns into ice,” he said. “And if it happens to be in the sunlight, if you’re on the ground in the dark, you can see it as a kind of big cloud, and sometimes it’s swirling.”

Though it’s not a common sight, Hampton said he’s seen such incidents about three times.

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The vortex’s appearance was captured in time-lapse using the Geophysical Institute’s all-sky camera and was widely shared. “It started a little internet storm with this spiral,” Hampton said.

Photographers who were out and about for the northern lights show also posted their photos on social media.

The rocket, which lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Friday evening, carried about 25 satellites as payloads.

It was a polar launch that made it visible over much of Alaska.

“The timing was right, they had done some kind of fuel dump at the time, and we got this really cool looking spiral thing,” he said.

And although it looked like a galaxy was sweeping over Alaska, he assures that it wasn’t.

“I can tell you it’s not a galaxy,” he said. “It’s just water vapor reflecting the sunlight.”

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Brian Ashcraft

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