Footage of SpaceX rocket launch falsely linked to Turkey earthquake conspiracy theories

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Footage of a SpaceX rocket launch in 2018 is circulating in social media posts falsely claiming it shows a strange object spotted in the sky shortly before a devastating earthquake hit Turkey and Syria in February 2023. Some posts linked the video to baseless conspiracy theories linking the disaster to a US research programme called HAARP.

"Anyone know what this thing is?" reads an Indonesian-language Facebook post uploaded on February 19, 2023.

"This strange machine was seen in the sky moments before the Turkey earthquake, which has killed more than 35,000 people."

The post also shared a 40-second video that shows a glowing object flying in the sky.

Screenshot of the misleading post, taken on March 8, 2023

The video was shared in similar posts, including in English, Romanian, Spanish and Korean, which also falsely claimed it was filmed just before a 7.8-magnitude quake hit Turkey and Syria on February 6, 2023.

By the month's end, the devastating quake had killed more than 50,000 people in both countries.

Several posts mentioned the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), a US research station that has been falsely blamed for the tragedy.

Turkey is one of the world's most active earthquake zones. A combination of factors made the February 2023 tremor particularly deadly, including its timing, location and the weak construction of the collapsed buildings, according to experts.

The same footage has circulated online for years in posts claiming it shows UFOs, or tying it to conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and the flat-earth movement.

SpaceX rocket launch

A reverse image search on Yandex, using keyframes from the video led to this footage, posted on YouTube on October 8, 2018.

The 11-minute video, shared by a US-based user, is titled: "The SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Launch from Vandenberg AFB ~ 10-7-18", referring to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The Falcon 9, made by billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX, lit up the sky when it launched on October 7, 2018. The rocket transported a satellite into space before touching back down on Earth less than eight minutes later.

At the 37-second mark, the clip shows a clear view of a freeway. AFP geolocated the spot to a bridge overlooking the Ventura Freeway, in southern California.

The video in the misleading posts shows scenes from the 2:22 mark of the genuine YouTube clip, but they are rotated 90 degrees clockwise.

Below is a screenshot comparison of the video in the misleading post (left) and the genuine YouTube video (right).

Screenshot comparison of the video in the misleading post (left) and the genuine YouTube video (right)

According to NASA, the halo-like ripples were created by thrusters guiding the reusable rocket back to the landing site.

The same ripples can be seen in SpaceX's live broadcast of the launch, at the 20:25 timestamp.

AFP has previously debunked a wave of misinformation about the Turkey-Syria earthquake, including a 2022 video of a rocket launched in Kazakhstan falsely linked to the 2023 disaster.