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Mystery flash in sky seen from Mauna Kea has folks baffled


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By Baron Sekiya | Hawaii 24/7

(updated 7/2/11 with additional video footage and additional reference image)

In the early morning hours of Wednesday (June 22) cameras outside the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, UH 2.2m Telescope and Subaru Telescope captured a mysterious bubble of light in the Eastern sky. The event was captured by three separate cameras and two observers who were wearing night-vision optics according to reports.

At least one of the online astronomy forums at Starship Asterisk* is buzzing with theories of what could have caused the cosmic bubble of light. Posted in the forum (with a date correction and acronym addition by us):

My name is Ichi Tanaka, a Support Astronomer of Subuaru Telescope, Hawaii

On the early morning of 22 June we, Subaru Telescope observers on the summit of Mauna Kea, noticed that there is a huge halo of light above the eastern horizon. It was slowly expanding to over 45 degrees in five minutes or more. The event was captured by the Subaru Catwalk Night Camera and also by CFHT’s NNW webcam. The animated gif movie of the Subaru webcam is attached. I also contacted Kanoa Withington in CFHT, and they made a quite nice movie of the event. The link is below.

(Editor’s note: see it in the movie at the top of this post)

We have absolutely no idea about the nature of this. It appears that the event happened not on the Summit area, but much farther away, according to the comparison of the two videos. This means that the size of the light halo is quite large. After some discussion, we decided to send this to APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day), in the hopes that APOD readers can help us to understand the nature of this event.

One leading theory is that it was a Minuteman III ICBM launched from Vandenberg, Air Force Base in California causing a shockwave from one of its upper stages. Other theories include a volcanic event, spent fuel burn, static from an earthquake, gamma ray burst and a few others.

Gary Fujihara of the UH Institute for Astronomy said, “The event was witnessed in the northeastern skies on June 22nd around 3:40am HST by remote webcams mounted on observatories at the summit of Mauna Kea, and by one team of observers at the Subaru Telescope. I would theorize that because the timescale of this episode is so short (and therefore quick), it would be atmospheric versus cosmic in nature. Perhaps fuel venting from a spacecraft or discarded upper-stage of a rocket?”

Fujihara then points us to Discover Magazine’s blog which also latched on the mystery and says the puzzle pieces seem to fit the upper-stage rocket theory.

To give you a reference of what the field of view from the CFHT webcam in the video looks like is a daytime view below. You can see the large cinder cones, which can be seen in the video, down the mountainside and the horizon beyond that. Zoom-out on the satellite map above to get an idea of how large and far away those cinder cones are. The Light Halo was a very large event.

A daytime reference view through the NNW webcam of Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. This is the view in the opening sequence of the video at the top of this post. Photo courtesy of CFHT.

A daytime reference view through the NNW webcam of Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. This is the view in the opening sequence of the video at the top of this post. Photo courtesy of CFHT.

2 Responses to “Mystery flash in sky seen from Mauna Kea has folks baffled”

  1. Joseph C. Keller, M. D. says:

    The Subaru video looks authetic, but the Canada France Hawaii Telescope video, stills from which dominate the internet, is falsified: the brighter stars are fake and many of the real stars are deleted. Also, there are a lot of physical inconsistencies with the rocket fuel dump theory.

  2. thomas says:

    Some of the stars move, and others don’t.

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