SpaceX has been in the news for their failed Starship rocket launch on April 20, but a few days earlier, they were in the news for something much different. While astrophotographers have been getting images of SpaceX launches for years, photographer Todd Salat captured something really special over the Donnelly Dome in Alaska. Also known as the Aurora Hunter, Salat was out taking photos of the aurora on April 15 when a mysterious spiral appeared.
“I was utterly surprised and mystified when I first spotted a distant bright light coming toward me from the northern horizon,” he shared. “At first, I thought it was a jet airliner flying through some clouds. Then it took on the spiral shape and grew big fast!”
Salat couldn't believe what he was seeing and was left feeling a bit confused about what had taken place. Luckily, he was able to act quickly and capture the event so that he could share it with the world.
“I was shooting frantically with two camera/tripod set-ups knowing that this was a unique event, and within about seven minutes, the ‘apparition' swept by and disappeared. It was spellbinding! For the past two nights, I had been photographing auroras over this dome (Donnelly Dome) and hoping to catch something special. I got my wish!”
Once Salat got home, he began doing some research and that's when he realized that what he'd seen in the sky wasn't natural. Just three hours earlier, in California, a SpaceX Transporter-7 mission launched on the Falcon 9 from the Vandenberg Space Force Base. The spiral is actually frozen rocket engine exhaust. When it catches the sunlight at high altitudes, it glows, and a spiral formation is created.
Salat wasn't the only one to get a glimpse at the rare event. The University of Alaska's Poker Flat Research Range has an all-night camera that also recorded the event. At around 09:50 UT mark, the spiral appears and then mysteriously vanishes just as quickly as it came into view.
Transporter is SpaceX's rideshare mission, and this was its seventh launch. According to SpaceNews, it was carrying 51 satellites. Though the full payload list wasn't available, some of the satellites included were for greenhouse gas monitoring, as well as weather monitoring. This was the first time that a Transporter mission had launched from California, with the previous six missions taking off from Florida's Cape Canaveral.