The Bizarre Whirlpool Seen Flying Over Hawaii

Maunakea, Hawaii is home to a dormant volcano that peaks at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. This snow-capped peak and the lands surrounding it are considered sacred to the Maunakea kiaʻi, who are Indigenous to the island and serve as its guardians. As detailed by the University of Virginia, the island shares a namesake with the sky god Wakea, who in partnership with Papahanaumoku gave birth to the Hawaiian islands, as the native legend goes. The peak on Maunakea is called "wao akua" or "realm of the gods," and is where the snow goddess Poliahu, among others, rests. 

According to the Big Island Guide, the mountain's isolation, geography, and weather also make it a prime spot for astronomy, and more than a dozen telescopes have been installed there, much to the disdain of Indigenous groups — although the governor did sign a law in 2022 that officially granted stewardship over the land to Native Hawaiians. It's from this post that a tag team of scientists from all over the world and native Hawaiians monitor the night sky. But in January of 2023, something out-of-the-ordinary was captured on camera: a weird "whirlpool" seen spiraling out into the universe.

What caused the spiral?

In a video captured by the Subaru-Asahi Star Camera operated by The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, the object in the sky first appears as a white sphere traveling diagonally across the screen before expanding in a spiral motion and then disappearing from sight completely. Was it a bird? A plane? Some other strange, mysterious, unexplainable UFO

Despite how tempting it may be to think the spiral was caused by some extraterrestrial object, the astrological team quickly hypothesized a logical explanation behind the strange swirling light captured by the telescope. The same day the phenomenon was observed, Elon Musk's company, SpaceX, launched a satellite into space using a Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. According to an online community on spaceweather, this spiral is thought to have been produced by the Falcon 9 rocket depositing fuel on its way to landing back into the ocean. 

This wasn't the first rarity observed from the observatory

This wasn't the first time strange light patterns have been observed in the sky following the launch of a SpaceX aircraft. In April of 2022, the same Japanese-operated telescope on Maunakea in Hawaii captured another strange spiral on camera. Just like the spiral observed in January 2023, the one observed in April was also linked to the journey of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, according to CNet. Similar patterns were reported (via Twitter) in the New Zealand night sky in June 2022, the same day of a SpaceX launch (per NPR). 

As noted by NPR, in May 2022, a SpaceX take-off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was also linked to a different strange shape in the night sky: a bulbous floating orb that viewers quickly named the "space jellyfish." The scientific community online at Spaceweather has also reported images of "smoke rings," and a "rocket-powered aurora" that looked sort of like a sunset-colored Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.