Another Russian rocket spiral lights up the sky

The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 12 2009 10:13 AM

Another Russian rocket spiral lights up the sky

Hey, does this look vaguely familiar?

russian_booster_again

That is not a different view of the Norway spiral light; it was taken in Russia over a day later. It looks like the Russians are testing more rockets, and creating more lights in the sky.

Despite the lunacy involved with the last time we saw spirals in the sky, this picture is clearly of another Russian missile test. To recap: a weird spiral light thingy in the skies over Norway last week was caused by the sub-based rocket launch of a Bulava missile, a new system being tested by the Russians. The spiral(s) were due to the rocket spinning and venting some sort of gas, though the details are still being determined. It may have been done on purpose as part of a gyroscopic-stabilization move, or it may have been spinning out of control. The former would explain why the spiral is so beautifully symmetric. [UPDATE (Oct. 16, 2013 at 16:45 UTC): I know it's been a while since I originally posted this article, but it's worth updating. My friend and space historian James Oberg has informed me that this event is more likely a planned fuel dump rather than an out-of-control booster. This might be done to dump surplus fuel not needed for a short-range test flight.]

This one wasn't quite so well-formed, but is clearly the same thing. There's video, too:

 

This new one was seen just a little over a day later inside Russia, and was from a Topol missile, the land-based version of the Bulava. According to space historian, NBC News consultant, and space folklore specialist James Oberg:

It was launched from the 'Kapustin Yar' missile range on the lower Volga, an old test range that goes back to the late 1940s. The missile impacted in the Sary Shagan military reservation in eastern Kazakhstan. [...] Since the flight path was completely internal, no navigation warnings were issued.

russian_booster_again2TASS claims it hit the target, and you can see in the video there appears to be a spiral there too; that supports the idea the spiral was on purpose and may be part of the stabilization. Interesting. Note that in this second picture, you can see the spiral expanding from the inside out, again, like last time, exactly what you expect from material being spewed out from a rapidly rotating booster.

Another important thing to people like me, though, is that the cause of this is clearly a rocket -- it fits what we know about how these things work, there are good explanations of it, and we even have a mea culpa from Russia. But if you read the comments from the Norway lights post I made, or really anywhere this was discussed on the web, you'll find hordes of people making claims that are pretty silly at best.

I have no doubt this will continue with this new sighting, as well. After all, why make one interdimensional holographic portal from the future when you can make two?

It just goes to show you that this sort of non-rational thinking will be with us forever. It's rather ironic to think that the reality of a complicated and advanced rocket system sparks retro-fantasies of UFOs. It makes me wonder if the captain of the first starship will carry a lucky rabbit's foot along.

In reality, I know we can never stamp out such irrationality. All we can do is hope to minimize it. I can be satisfied with that.


Picture credit: ww.e1.ru. My thanks to my friend James Oberg for notifying me about this.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Hey, does this look vaguely familiar?

russian_booster_again

That is not a different view of the Norway spiral light; it was taken in Russia over a day later. It looks like the Russians are testing more rockets, and creating more lights in the sky.

Despite the lunacy involved with the last time we saw spirals in the sky, this picture is clearly of another Russian missile test. To recap: a weird spiral light thingy in the skies over Norway last week was caused by the sub-based rocket launch of a Bulava missile, a new system being tested by the Russians. The spiral(s) were due to the rocket spinning and venting some sort of gas, though the details are still being determined. It may have been done on purpose as part of a gyroscopic-stabilization move, or it may have been spinning out of control. The former would explain why the spiral is so beautifully symmetric. [UPDATE (Oct. 16, 2013 at 16:45 UTC): I know it's been a while since I originally posted this article, but it's worth updating. My friend and space historian James Oberg has informed me that this event is more likely a planned fuel dump rather than an out-of-control booster. This might be done to dump surplus fuel not needed for a short-range test flight.]

This one wasn't quite so well-formed, but is clearly the same thing. There's video, too:

 

This new one was seen just a little over a day later inside Russia, and was from a Topol missile, the land-based version of the Bulava. According to space historian, NBC News consultant, and space folklore specialist James Oberg:

It was launched from the 'Kapustin Yar' missile range on the lower Volga, an old test range that goes back to the late 1940s. The missile impacted in the Sary Shagan military reservation in eastern Kazakhstan. [...] Since the flight path was completely internal, no navigation warnings were issued.

russian_booster_again2TASS claims it hit the target, and you can see in the video there appears to be a spiral there too; that supports the idea the spiral was on purpose and may be part of the stabilization. Interesting. Note that in this second picture, you can see the spiral expanding from the inside out, again, like last time, exactly what you expect from material being spewed out from a rapidly rotating booster.

Another important thing to people like me, though, is that the cause of this is clearly a rocket -- it fits what we know about how these things work, there are good explanations of it, and we even have a mea culpa from Russia. But if you read the comments from the Norway lights post I made, or really anywhere this was discussed on the web, you'll find hordes of people making claims that are pretty silly at best.

I have no doubt this will continue with this new sighting, as well. After all, why make one interdimensional holographic portal from the future when you can make two?

It just goes to show you that this sort of non-rational thinking will be with us forever. It's rather ironic to think that the reality of a complicated and advanced rocket system sparks retro-fantasies of UFOs. It makes me wonder if the captain of the first starship will carry a lucky rabbit's foot along.

In reality, I know we can never stamp out such irrationality. All we can do is hope to minimize it. I can be satisfied with that.


Picture credit: ww.e1.ru. My thanks to my friend James Oberg for notifying me about this.

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