Early Sunday, the Milky Way was tinted in an unusual shade of red, mystifying sky-gazers across the Mid-Atlantic.
Only a few people recorded the sight on camera, which was not visible to the human eye. However, long-exposure photos captured the red streak, which lasted barely a few minutes at 12:30 a.m. Sunday.
Many believe the red glow was caused by the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which took place simultaneously. Photographs of the glow were taken in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Ohio.
“At first, I thought maybe a thin cloud but not the case,” Christopher Hoffman, who photographed the scene in St. Mary’s County, Md., said in an email. “After research, I came across an article that said SpaceX launch Falcon 9 was launched at 12:27 a.m.”
David Johnston, who captured the picture in eastern West Virginia, posted a detailed analysis on Facebook, linking the glow to SpaceX.
“I was shooting the Milky Way behind some silhouetted rocks when suddenly one of my images had this prominent red blob right in front of the core that had not been there in the previous image 3 minutes before,” Johnston wrote in his Facebook post. “I was really annoyed because it ruined my picture, but I figured it would go away.”
Rather, it spread to fill a big portion of the southeastern sky, according to Johnston. “I had no idea what this was, and it freaked me out,” he wrote. Because of the launch date, he eventually concluded that the glow was caused by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
Though, some believe SpaceX is not the reason behind the red night sky. Space weather expert Tamitha Skov believes it was most likely an aurora borealis.
“It is highly likely this is what we often call ‘sub-visual’ aurora,” she said.
“During this time, we were at active conditions (Kp 4) due to some fast solar wind hitting Earth. Considering this is Maryland, which is at mid-latitudes, it doesn’t surprise me that this was captured on camera but not visible to the naked eye.”
“A student of mine saw the SpaceX rocket launch at a similar time, and even in the camera, the scattered light from the rocket exhaust remained a localized white plume [see tweet below], so I really do not think the above phenomenon is a result of the SpaceX launch, but simply another dazzling reminder of how far south aurora really does occur, if we are willing to do what it takes to look for it,” she continued.
However, SpaceWeather.com stated that there was unlikely enough geomagnetic activity from the sun to cause auroras.