An eerie spiral light show in the pre-dawn sky over Australia early Saturday prompted a flood of UFO reports to local news stations, but was likely just the remnants of a new private rocket launched by an American millionaire, according to Australian media reports.
The bright sky spiral appeared before sunrise on Saturday over New South Wales, Queensland and the Australia Capital Territory (ACT), with witnesses describing it as a "lollipop-type swirl," the Australia Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) reported.
"The spiral looked like a bright light shining through some clouds in a spiral shape, except the edges of the spiral were very sharp and defined unlike what a cloud might look like," Baden West, who snapped photos of the spiral before it faded from view, told SPACE.com in an e-mail. "It was also very large, much bigger than any photo makes it look and in terms of brightness. It looked like it was about as bright as a full moon but all the light was coming from a much smaller point."
Another skywatcher described the sky apparition as a "huge revolving moon," according to ABC.
But despite claims of otherworldly origins, the phenomenon was likely created by the new Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), a California-based spaceflight company led by millionaire PayPal co-founder Elon Musk.
"I heard people in Australia thought UFOs were visiting :)," SpaceX's millionaire founder Elon Musk told SPACE.com in an e-mail. "The venting of propellants, which is done to ensure that an overpressure event doesn't produce orbital debris, created a temporary halo caught the sun at just the right angle for a great view from Australia. I thought the pictures looked really cool." [See the sky spiral.]
Professional skywatchers quickly suggested that SpaceX's first Falcon 9 rocket may be the source of the sky spiral, ABC reported
"The fact that you've got the rotation, the spiral effect, is very reminiscent of the much widely reported sightings from Norway and Russia last year, which both turned out to be a Bulava missile which was being adjusted in its orbit," Geoffrey Whyatt of the Sydney Observatory told ABC. "So possibly a rocket, I would say, having some sort of gyroscopic stability rocket fired on its side."
The Bulava missile spiral occurred in December 2009 and also set off a flurry of UFO reports from observers on the ground, as well as resulting in spectacular photos.
The new Falcon 9 blasted off Friday afternoon from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a successful test flight that reached an orbit of about 155 miles (250 km) above Earth.
SpaceX plans to use the two-stage Falcon 9 rocket to launch its own Dragon spacecraft on unmanned cargo flights to the International Space Station for NASA under a $1.6 billion contract with the U.S. space agency.
Musk also hopes to add an emergency launch escape system to the 180-foot (55-meter) tall rocket and refit the Dragon spacecraft to launch astronauts into space.
NASA plans to retire its three aging space shuttles later this year after two final missions and rely on commercial spacecraft to send astronauts and cargo into orbit.
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