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An unusual glowing swirl of light that pirouetted over Hawaii on Sunday wasn’t the result of extraterrestrials after all.
The mysterious “night spiral” spotted by one of the island’s numerous telescopes was in fact a dying SpaceX rocket.
It was imaged by the Subaru telescope on April 17 near Mauna Kea, hours after a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from California.
The booster was delivering a top-secret spy satellite to orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.
After the separation of the NROL-85 spacecraft carrying the satellite, the rocket’s second booster deorbited over the Pacific Ocean.
This is standard procedure for SpaceX – which is operated by billionaire Elon Musk – and ensures that defunct rocket parts are safely disposed of because they burn up during reentry.
The booster’s violent demise is what led to the spiral captured by Subaru, a telescope operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.
The video “shows the characteristic spiral caused by the post-deorbit-burn fuel vent of the Falcon 9 upper stage,” said Netherlands-based satellite tracker Marco Langbroek.
He added that the object “deorbited over the Pacific just after the end of the 1st revolution.”
Following the release of the first images of the swirl, some conspiracy theorists had posited that it was a sign of alien life.
The NROL-85 satellite lifted off at 6:13 a.m. EST from Vandenberg Space Force Base aboard a two-stage SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
It was the first mission by the NRO to reuse a SpaceX rocket booster, Vandenberg said in a statement.
The Falcon’s first stage flew back and landed at the seaside base northwest of Los Angeles.
The upper stage of Falcon 9, however, is not reusable, and after completing its mission fell back naturally into the atmosphere.
The spiral patterns that emerge as the boosters burn up is known to be caused by leaking gas.
The NRO only described the NROL-85 satellite as a critical national security payload.
Its launch was one of three awarded by the Air Force to SpaceX in 2019 for a combined fixed price of $297 million.
The NRO is the government agency in charge of developing, building, launching and maintaining US satellites.
They provide intelligence data to senior policymakers, the intelligence community and the Defense Department.
This article originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced here with permission.