Astronomers Identify Mysterious ‘Flying Whirlpool’ in the Sky

A whirlpool-like anomaly over Hawaii was identified as originating with a SpaceX rocket that launched a classified spy satellite into orbit.
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Image: Subaru Telescope

A mysterious whirlpool-like object spotted in the sky over Hawaii was identified as SpaceX rocket debris, according to an astronomer at Leiden University.

A telescope located atop the dormant Mauna Kea volcano spotted a spiral-shaped object spinning through the night sky on Sunday evening, leading to confusion and intrigue online, according to Dr. Marco Langbroek, technical advisor at the Leiden University astronomy department and author at the SatTrackCam blog.

It was spotted just hours after SpaceX launched a pair of spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. Langbroek believes the whirlpool was the post-deorbit-burn fuel vent for the upper stage of the rocket used in that mission. 

The piece of Falcon 9 that was spotted in the atmosphere was totally normal—a piece of a rocket stage that had been jettisoned over the Pacific Ocean. That rocket contained a NROL-85 spacecraft, a spy satellite deployed in the fourth dedicated Falcon 9 mission that SpaceX has carried out for the intelligence agency.