Stargazers in New Zealand were surprised by strange, billowing light formations in the night sky on Sunday night. The images were widely shared on social media, with many New Zealanders comparing them to a kind of “wormhole”. But experts said these “strange clouds” were caused by the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the DM15 Global Star satellite.
The extraordinary sight was first captured by the residents of Nelson, a town on the North Island of New Zealand, and was visible 750 km south of Stewart Island.
“Does anyone know if there’s a satellite in orbit around New Zealand tonight or perhaps an Australian satellite, that saw something like the picture I posted at about 1920 hours tonight looking a little west at high altitude from Rangiora Canterbury,” a Facebook user Justin بوصة Published in Astronomy Group New Zealand.
“The picture you posted is just an example of what I saw. I couldn’t get a picture of it, just snapped my benno and saw what appeared to be a satellite in the middle of a snail heading north at a significant rate,” the user said as well.
Users flooded the group with comments. One user commented, “Yes, many of us have seen it from Hawk’s Bay, near the tail of the Great Canis, and then moving north-east.”
Another said, “It’s absolutely amazing.”
Professor Richard Easter, a physicist at the University of Auckland, explained the reason behind this phenomenon. Clouds of this type sometimes occur when a rocket carries a satellite into orbit, he said Watchman.
“When the propellant is ejected from the back, you have what is basically water and carbon dioxide – which briefly forms a cloud in space that is illuminated by the sun,” Professor Easter said. “The geometry of the satellite’s orbit as well as the way we sit in relation to the sun — this combination of things was just right to produce these totally strange clouds that were visible from the South Island.”
The New Plymouth Astronomical Society stated on Facebook that it was “most likely a ‘fuel dump’ or ‘exhaust plume’ from a SpaceX rocket launch,” and similar effects have also been seen before.
According to Professor Easter, the rocket in question is the Falcon 9, which SpaceX used to send a satellite into low Earth orbit on Sunday.
SpaceX President Elon Musk congratulated the Falcon team on the launches. “Congratulations to the SpaceX Falcon team for making 3 flawless launches in 2 days!” He said on Twitter.