The mysterious red glow in the night sky over Bear Rocks, West Virginia. Image courtesy of David S. Johnston.
In the early hours of Sunday, patient night photographers struck gold when they captured an image of an otherworldly red glow darting across the galaxy. They suspect the culprit was a SpaceX rocket launched from Florida minutes earlier.
Photographer David S. Johnston captured the red-tinted sky while taking long exposures of the Milky Way at 12:30 am on June 19 in Bear Rocks, West Virginia.
The sky’s red color wasn’t visible to the naked eye, but after Johnston looked back at his photos, it was clear the camera had caught something special.
“I had no idea what that was and it kind of scared me,” Johnston wrote in a Facebook post.
“I showed the pictures to a few people this morning and a friend maybe half-jokingly said it might have been a rocket launch. But I checked it out, and sure enough, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 carrying a Globalstar satellite payload from Florida at 12:27 a.m. just minutes before the red appeared,” he added.
The first photos only show a red blob in the sky. Image courtesy of David S. Johnston
Johnston isn’t the only one to suspect the rocket blast created the stunning scene. Similar images have been captured in Maryland, North Carolina, and elsewhere, with many other photographers coming to the same conclusion, while some scientists also think the SpaceX rocket’s explanation may be down to something.
Carlos Martinis of Boston University’s Center for Space Physics told The Washington Post that the red glow could be related to Falcon 9’s second-stage engine burn, which typically starts about three minutes after liftoff at an altitude when positive oxygen ions are present are present in the atmosphere. Fueled by the intense combustion of the rocket engine, the oxygen ions are excited to combine with other surrounding molecules to form molecular O2+, N2+ and NO+ ions, which react with electrons and produce a glow.
Alternatively, Tamitha Skov, a space weather expert, told the newspaper that the image may have captured a “sub-visual aurora.”
The red flare looks like an aurora, but probably isn’t. Image courtesy of David S. Johnston
In the Northern Hemisphere, the Aurora Borealis is the product of electrically charged particles from the Sun’s corona colliding with Earth’s magnetosphere. The collision releases energy, excites gases in our upper atmosphere, and causes atmospheric molecules to ionize. The reaction also produces light, with oxygen ions producing green and yellow light and nitrogen producing red or blue light.
A similar phenomenon could be behind the eerie red skies recently seen across the US, Skov suggests.
Whatever the explanation, we can all agree it made for some beautiful photos.
“I can’t believe I had my camera pointed in exactly the right direction and was actively photographing at exactly the right time!” Johnston said in his post.