Those Weird Green Space Lights Over Hawaii Didn't Come From NASA

The lights have a space origin story, but it seems NASA wasn't involved.

Amanda Kooser
Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
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A still image captured by a camera on the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii shows the cloudy night sky with a curtain of individual downward streaks of green laser light.

These oddball green streaks of light came from a satellite. 

Subaru Telescope/NAOJ

On Jan. 28, a series of green lights zipped across the night sky in Hawaii. The Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea captured footage of the unusual sight with its livestreaming Subaru-Asahi Star Camera. Though the lights might've prompted concern among some folks about UFOs, they actually have a satellite-related explanation. After some initial confusion, the telescope team traced the likely origin of the lights to a Chinese satellite.

The Subaru Telescope team shared a video of the lights, showing several different versions of the rare view, including a contrast-enhanced look that helps them stand out against the cloudy sky. "The lights are thought to be from a remote-sensing altimeter satellite ICESat-2/43613," the telescope team tweeted on Jan. 30. That was a good guess, but it turned out to be a different satellite.

On Monday, the Subaru Telescope folks updated their video to say the ICESat-2 team had run a simulation of satellite trajectories and identified the Chinese Daqi-1/AEMS satellite as the most likely source of the laser lights. "We really appreciate their efforts in the identification of the light," the Subaru people said and apologized for any confusion. The China National Space Administration and the Chinese embassy in the US didn't immediately respond to CNET's request for comment. 

NASA's Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) launched in late 2018. It shoots laser pulses at Earth to measure our planet's surface. It's helping scientists track changes in ice sheets, sea ice, glaciers and forests. The satellite's laser color is bright green, which is why it seemed like an obvious candidate for the Hawaii lights. Daqi-1, however, has a similar instrument on board and its trajectory matched the time of the lights' appearance in the cloudy sky.

The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan operates the telescope, which has also witnessed some other strange sights in the sky, including a "whirlpool" caused by a SpaceX rocket. The whirlpool and the green streaks might look bizarre and otherworldly, but both come from human ingenuity and effort. No aliens involved.

First published Feb. 2, 2023, at 10:13 a.m. PT. Updated Feb. 9 to reflect new potential origin of the lights.