Recent reports regarding United States Officials’ information on unidentified flying objects (UFO) - or, more poignantly, their lack thereof - have demonstrated that there remain many mysteries within the night sky. Bizarre and fleeting phenomenon can go without being seen or understood despite humankind’s advancements in astronomy, so it’s really rather satisfying when The Curious Case of the <enter bizarre celestial display here> is cracked by science.
On June 18, one such unexplained event was witnessed in the skies of New Caledonia and Vanuatu in the southwest Pacific at around 6 pm. Here, several witnesses saw and photographed a beautiful, but rather puzzling spiral that appeared to be unfurling in the sky before their eyes. In a since-updated Facebook post about the report, the Association Calédonienne d'Astronomie (ACA) said:
“Several witnesses in Yaté, Thio, La Tontouta and in Vanuatu saw this strange phenomenon. We have no explanation, but we are far from being specialists in this kind of phenomenon. Based on our initial research, the only similar but even more dramatic phenomenon is the Norway Spiral in 2009.”
The 2009 Norway Spiral was also a spectacle to behold, observed across the northern end of the country for around 10 minutes. While such a sight might easily send many into an existential tailspin, the magnificent display was found to be the result of a Russian missile launch that went wrong. The Bulava missile, which was confirmed by the Russian government to have been the source of the spiral according to a report from New Scientist, is thought to have been damaged causing the exhaust to point at the wrong angle. This led to the missile twirling with a plomb, spewing out fire which created the enormous spiraling display.
So, does our Pacific swirl have a similarly down-to-Earth explanation? According to the ACA, yes.
“Jonathan McDowell, an American astronomer who lists all the maneuvers and orbital launches on the planet confirmed that it was the second stage of a Chinese Long March 2C rocket, which took off on June 18 at 06:25 UTC from the center of launch of Xichang, with 4 satellites on board,” wrote the ACA on their updated Facebook post. “Amaury Bellee, who contacted him, explains: “after completing its mission, the stage would have expelled its fuel (UDMH and nitrogen peroxide) to passivate, that is to say it [prevents it from exploding] in orbit due to the residual pressure in the tanks. It is this phenomenon that you have observed’.”
The spiral is the second seen this year as McDowell explained to the ACA that the same source was responsible for a swirl spotted back in May. Both sky swirls were seen within 30 minutes of a rocket launch taking off from the same place with the same parameters: “an inclination of the orbit of 34 ° with a direction of launch towards the south-east according to Joseph Remis, another specialist in the subject,” said the ACA.
A similar launch is expected in July so, if you’re in the Pacific, keep your eyes peeled!
[HT: NZ Herald]