Photo Credit: Todd Salat, aurorahunter.com
By Emily Carney
In the early morning of April 15, 2023, an otherworldly, shimmery blue “spiral” appeared in the skies over Fairbanks, Alaska. Those with an untrained eye may have assumed it was a UFO or UAP (“unidentified aerial phenomena”). The spiral – which resembled a well-formed galaxy – was photographed by aurorae hunters seeking photos of the polar light phenomena, including Todd Salat (whose stunning image is reprinted here). Due to Alaska’s proximity to the poles, aurorae are common in the U.S.’s northernmost state. While this spiral vision is rare over the Alaskan skies, it has happened before – and its presence hinges upon spaceflight.
Three hours before these photos were snapped, SpaceX’s Transporter 7 launch – which also lofted Celestis’ Excelsior Flight into low Earth orbit – lifted off from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base. The Associated Press stated that the unique vision may have been caused by “excess fuel that had been released from a SpaceX rocket that launched from California about three hours before the spiral appeared.”
However, Celestis has confirmed the culprit for the exquisite galactic sight in the early morning northern skies. The “spiral” viewed by many aurorae watchers was likely the rocket body of the Transporter 7 spaceflight reentering Earth’s atmosphere, which produced a stunning light show, giving the Excelsior Flight participants a truly unforgettable send-off.
Photo Credit: Todd Salat, aurorahunter.com
The Excelsior Flight Reentry
SpaceX’s Transporter 7 spaceflight lifted off from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base at 11:48 PDT on April 14, 2023. Spaceflight Industries’ payload – with Celestis’ Excelsior Flight participant capsules attached – was located on the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage and entered into a near-polar Sun-synchronous orbit shortly after launch. The vehicle went into a north-south orbit instead of a west-to-east orbit and thus passed by the Earth’s polar regions. This explains why the rocket stage was seen reentering over Alaska, closer to the Earth’s poles.
The Transporter 7 Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Excelsior Flight on the launchpad at Vandenberg. Image Credit: SpaceX livestream
According to our service provider Spaceflight Industries, the payload began to reenter Earth’s atmosphere approximately three hours after launch. Spaceflight Industries confirmed that the rocket body orbited the Earth multiple times before it began to reenter over the early morning skies of Fairbanks, Alaska, fulfilling the Excelsior Flight participants’ memorial spaceflight (Celestis promises that each Earth Orbit Service will make at least one orbit of Earth before reentry).
The beautiful spiral photographed is likely the rocket body venting its final propellant just before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere like a shooting star. According to space physicist Don Hampton, quoted in the Associated Press article, "When they do that at high altitudes, that fuel turns into ice. And if it happens to be in the sunlight, when you're in the darkness on the ground, you can see it as a sort of big cloud, and sometimes it's swirly." It is an unprecedented symbolic salute to the brave souls aboard the Excelsior Flight, whose dreams of spaceflight were gloriously fulfilled.
It bears mentioning that Celestis is an environmentally conscious service, and no rocket or satellite debris landed in Alaska; the payload, along with the flight participant capsules, entirely burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere due to the intense heat of reentry, ensuring no spacecraft debris could endanger life and land. Moreover, each Excelsior Flight capsule was firmly attached to the payload on the rocket’s second stage, guaranteeing no debris was released and contaminated the space environment before reentry.
About Celestis’ Earth Orbit Service
You, too, can fulfill your dreams of spaceflight by arranging for a future memorial spaceflight or sending your DNA into Earth orbit. Celestis Memorial Spaceflights’ next Earth Orbit Service, the Serenity Flight, is scheduled to launch during the second quarter of 2024 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the historic home of human spaceflight since the early 1960s Mercury Program days. In addition, your family can view the ultimate tribute – a glorious, thunderous rocket launch – to a life well-lived, or you can watch your DNA launch from the U.S. heart of human spaceflight.
For more information about each of our memorial spaceflight services, please visit Celestis’ website. To receive a catalog or speak with a Celestis representative, please call us toll-free (U.S. and Canada) at 1-866-866-1186 (International: 1-281-971-4019). Also, feel free to utilize our “Contact Us” page. To learn more about how Celestis guarantees your memorial spaceflight, please read Celestis FAQs: Celestis’ Performance Guarantee.
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