What Was the Strange Blue Whirlpool in the Sky Over Hawaii?

Something strange happened in the skies above Hawaii on Jan. 18. A vivid, startlingly large blue spiral appeared over the islands and hovered there long enough to be photographed by the Subaru-Asahi Star Camera on Mauna Kea.

The time-lapse footage is spectacular. The spiral first emerges as a small blob of light before unfolding into a beautiful, mysterious, galaxy-shaped phenomenon.

Unfortunately for science fiction fans and/or anyone who had “sucked into a random space whirlpool” on their End O’ The World Bingo Card, the light show ended up having a fairly pedestrian explanation.

“The spiral seems to be related to the SpaceX company’s launch of a new satellite,” the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) wrote on its Twitter account. The NAOJ co-owns the Subaru-Asahi Star Camera along with the Japanese news agency Asahi Shimbun.

Here’s how it happened, per LiveScience.com. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 7:24 am EST on Jan. 18. The first stage separated about three minutes after launch, leaving the second stage to maneuver itself into position to deploy its payload: a U.S. Space Force GPS satellite.

After deployment, the second stage fell back to earth. But first, it ejected its remaining fuel, sending the rocket stage into a spiral. Sunlight then illuminated the spiral of frozen fuel, creating the wondrous pattern above the Pacific Ocean.

Frozen rocket fuel from the Falcon 9’s second stage is illuminated by sunlight, creating this interesting pattern. Photo: Screenshot, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan


This isn’t the first time a SpaceX rocket delivered a visual treat to skywatchers.

“‘SpaceX spirals’ are becoming commonplace over the Pacific where Falcon 9 rocket stages are often de-orbited. They are created by plumes of unused fuel venting from the rocket’s spinning second stage before they plunge into the ocean,” wrote SpaceWeather.com.

The Falcon 9 generated a similar spiral on April 17, 2022, while delivering a spy satellite into orbit. The Subaru-Asahi Sky Camera also captured that event.

So if you happen to see a glowing blue spiral hovering in the skies above your head, don’t panic.

Unless you live in rural New Mexico, in which case panic wouldn’t be surprising.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at www.andrewmarshallimages.com, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).