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What's With The Mysterious Green Beams Over Hawaii?
in late january, a telescope in hawaii captured spectacular, eerie green lines flashing in the night sky. since then, several explanations have been proposed.
In the early morning of January 28 of this year, astronomers were flummoxed by the appearance of horizon-spanning, mysterious green beams in the Hawaii night sky. Astronomers were initially unsure of what caused the beams, but they soon began to offer a few possible explanations.
How the images were captured
Hawaii’s Subaru Telescope, located at the Mauana Kea Observatory, captured the green beams. Operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, it’s an 8.2-meter optical-infrared telescope, used for a wide range of astronomical research: the study of distant galaxies, the formation and evolution of stars, and the detection of exoplanets, for example. Notably, its large field of view and high-resolution capabilities have led to breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe — it’s been instrumental in the direct imaging of exoplanets and the study of dark matter through gravitational lensing.
When the telescope captured the images, they quickly went viral. Were the green lines an optical effect caused by weather, a near Earth object, or even… aliens? Were we finally seeing the Matrix revealed? To all these potential explanations, the answer is “probably not,” but let’s take a look.
One explanation for the green beams over Hawaii is that they were caused by a comet or asteroid, which can sometimes release clouds of gas and dust as they travel through space. These clouds can be visible from Earth and can sometimes appear green.
For example, in March 2022, astronomers discovered a comet later named C/2022 E3 that glowed green due to the presence of compounds like diatomic carbon and cyanogen around the body of the object.
It’s also possible that the green beams were caused by poorly understood natural phenomenon. There are a number of natural phenomena that can produce bright lights in the night sky, such as lightning and auroras. A type of lightning called blue jets, pictured at the top of this section — and which has been observed in the area of the Subaru Telescope — could be a culprit here. Occurring in the upper atmosphere, blue jets are typically invisible to the naked eye, but can seen under certain conditions, such as when they’re reflected off clouds.
The most likely explanation: a satellite called ICESat-2
The most likely explanation for the green beams over Hawaii is that they were caused by a NASA satellite called ICESat-2, which uses lasers to measure the distance to the ground. Launched in 2018, the satellite is used to measure the height of the Earth's ice sheets, and it does so by using a laser altimeter. Check out a gallery of images the ICESat-2 has generated for NASA here.
The Debrief goes in-depth with the astronomer who figured it out:
Checking with NASA satellite data, Fujii searched for any possible matches with objects being tracked in Earth’s orbit. Eventually, his search brought him to information on the position of the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite 2, otherwise known as the ICESat-2….
From its height of around 308 miles (496 km), the satellite’s near-polar orbit on September 16, 2022, brought it directly over Mount Fuji, meaning that it had been the likely culprit behind the phenomenon in the footage Fujii recovered. Especially since ICESat-2 actually does beam lasers toward Earth as it passes overhead.
Typically invisible to the naked eye, the effect of the satellite’s lasers can be seen when the conditions are just right — especially if there are clouds the light from the lasers can reflect.