Late last month, a bright, glowing orb streaked across the Alaskan sky, interrupting the view of the Northern Lights. The spinning blue circle was captured by aurora cameras and scientists believe they have isolated what the mysterious object was.
A shining ball of rotating light
The object appeared in the night sky over Alaska in the early morning hours of March 29. 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 within minutes.
“It looked like there was something spinning inside when I zoomed in on it,” he says. KTOO News in Fairbanks. “And it’s a little tail — a whitish tail. It’s not like he crossed the sky. It was like taking your time.
An automatic aurora-focused camera trap operated by husband and wife team Ronn Murray and Marketa Murray of The aurora hunters captured the giant ball. Their camera system takes pictures of the sky at about 45 second intervals all the time so anyone can visit their site and enjoy the aurora. This time, the camera took not just photos of the green-blue atmospheric phenomenon, but six images of the orb as it streaked across the sky.
Aurora hunters provided PetaPixel with the animation below which shows the object moving in the sky:
The object has sparked debate as to its origin and nature in the northernmost state, but scientists believe they know exactly what the mysterious orb was: a piece of a Chinese rocket.
Chinese rocket stage releases leftover fuel
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston, Massachusetts, says the timing of the orb sightings in Alaska matched the flight of a Chinese rocket that was carrying a satellite, KTOO reports.
“I’m very confident that what people saw was the fuel spill 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 region at about 350 miles exactly when this glow was seen in the Alaskan sky.
McDowell says the size of the orb can likely be attributed to the rocket blasting spent fuel out into space, which immediately froze and spread out, which then reflected sunlight, giving the impression that it shone for observers on the ground.
“This cloud is probably hundreds of miles across, which is why it looks so big,” he said. KTOO.
He was also able to explain why observers report seeing something spinning in the center of the orb: in order to maintain its orbit while the excess fuel is released, the rocket goes into free fall.
“End to end while spitting out that fuel like a garden hose, and then you get that kind of movement,” he explains.
This kind of phenomenon is not unique, it is just more common farther south and its intersection with the aurora borealis is even rarer. That said, a similar orb was described over Siberia in 2017 and was attributed to exhaust from a ballistic missile test.
Picture credits: All photos courtesy of Ronn and Marketa Murray of The aurora hunters.