Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

A mysterious glowing spiral appeared in the northern lights, and now we know what it was

Published Mar 25th, 2024 2:00PM EDT
great barred spiral galaxy
Image: u/SpaceGuy44 / STScI

If you buy through a BGR link, we may earn an affiliate commission, helping support our expert product labs.

With the solar maximum inching closer, astrophotographers are expecting to see more and more auroras in the night sky. However, that isn’t the only light show that photographers are catching photos of recently. In fact, a startling spiral light appeared within the northern lights earlier this month, raising questions that, thankfully, have a very easy answer.

The light that appeared in the skies over the Arctic might look otherworldly in nature, but it actually has a very terrestrial explanation. That’s because the spiral was created by what many have begun to call a “SpaceX spiral.” You can see the latest images in‘s report. This phenomenon has been spotted a number of times over the past couple of years, with one such spiral or whirlpool appearing over Hawaii in 2022.

The SpaceX spiral, which looks like a massive spiral of light in the sky, happens when certain SpaceX rockets lift off and carry payloads into space. These most notably happen when there are multiple payloads aboard the rocket, as the rocket needs to spin more than usual to release the payloads toward their destinations. Some people have said they almost look like spiral galaxies, which you can see in the image at the top of the article. Others have captured similar spirals in the past, like this one.

As for the nature of the spiral itself, the beautiful display that has now upstaged an aurora happens when a SpaceX rocket’s second stage begins its descent back into Earth’s atmosphere. When this happens, the rocket releases its remaining fuel into space, which often freezes and then reflects light, creating this startling spiral effect, which can sometimes be seen from Earth.

There are, of course, a lot of factors that come into play with these spirals, though. They don’t appear after every SpaceX launch, as the launches vary by time of day, the location they need to travel to in order to release their payloads, and more. They’re also extremely hard to predict, but that hasn’t stopped some from trying.

Astrophotographer Olivier Staiger predicted that the March 5 mission that created this most recent spiral light in the sky would be responsible for such a light show. And those predictions have proven true. Now, Staiger says that another major SpaceX mission set to launch in October will have a chance to create the same beautiful spiral display over Iceland and other parts of the Arctic, too.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.