Oh, those Falcon UFOs!

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
June 5 2010 10:03 AM

Oh, those Falcon UFOs!

Yesterday, a lot of Australians reported seeing a bizarre UFO.

Just before 6:00 a.m. local time, numerous reports came in about a spiral of light in the sky with a bright central spot. The light was actually spinning around, like a pinwheel! One site has pretty cool video of it, and pictures are turning up on the web as well.

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!  



Sound familiar? Yeah, it should: these reports are almost exactly like a spiral shaped light seen over Norway last year. The Norway sighting -- a picture of it is below, on the right -- was positively identified as a Russian missile, so of course as soon as I heard of this new Aussie sighting the first thing I thought of was that it was a rocket booster.

norway_spiralSo I leaned over my keyboard and was about to Google "rocket launch schedule" or something similar, when I suddenly stopped. I smiled, leaned back, and almost literally facepalmed myself. Gee, I thought to myself, what rocket would've launched yesterday morning?

Duh: the SpaceX Falcon 9! The private company successfully held its first test launch of the big rocket, blasting off from its Florida pad at 18:45 UT Friday -- which is 04:45 Sydney, Australia time.

I don't have ground tracks yet (maps of the path of the rocket over the Earth's surface) Here's the Falcon 9 ground track -- the path of the rocket over the Earth's surface -- provided by jetforme (based on orbital parameters):


Note how the path goes right over eastern Australia! The timing is perfect, too: about an hour later, the second stage would've been halfway around the world, matching the position and time of the UFO sightings.

The spiral pattern seen in Norway is known to be from gas leaking out of the booster. As the booster spins and the gas shoots out, it makes a water-sprinkler spiral pattern in the sky. As it happens, the second stage of the Falcon 9 was rotating; this was not supposed to happen and the SpaceX engineers are looking into it (it didn't affect the launch adversely; the payload achieved orbit).

So the timing was right, the booster was spinning, and we know that spirals like this are an outcome of rocket launches.

Of course, this isn't enough for some UFO believers. ABC in Australia had this from Doug Moffett of the UFO Research NSW:

"Firstly, the time of the launch was 18.45 GMT, which translates to 4.45am EST, the duration of the flight was 9 minutes 38 seconds - this is a full hour before the reported sightings," he said.

"Secondly, where was the glow from the boosters or from the friction created by the craft moving through the atmosphere, where was the tail of the rocket?"

"Thirdly, why would anyone launch a rocket on a maiden test flight with a trajectory that would take it over the most heavily populated parts of Australia?

"And how big must this rocket have been to be seen so clearly, at the same time, over such a vast distance?"

I have to admit, it's pretty rare to see somebody get so many things wrong in so few words! Let's take them point by point:

1) This isn't a starship, it's a rocket, and takes time to go around the Earth. An orbit is usually 90 minutes in period, so it takes about 45 minutes or so to get from Florida to Australia. Plus, since this was a launch it wasn't moving at top speed the whole time; it took a few minutes to accelerate to orbital speeds. That makes the timing about perfect.

spacex_secondstage2) Mr. Moffett needs to understand that a launch from Florida, tens of thousands of kilometers from Australia, gives the rocket plenty of time to get above our atmosphere (which is only a few kilometers high). Heck, the Falcon 9 was up and outside the atmosphere in the first few minutes of flight, when it was barely over the Atlantic! So by the time it was passing over Australia it would've been a couple of hundred kilometers up.

3) Again, Mr. Moffett's grasp of scale is lacking. If the rocket failed, it would have done so over the Atlantic. That's why we launch rockets from Florida in the first place! There's essentially no way a failure could cause a rocket to crash in Australia; by the time it gets there it's in orbit and safe.

4) This is the most telling point: anyone familiar with the sky knows that satellites are easy to spot with just your eye. Rockets can be even easier, especially when they're spewing out gas! This is something I've been saying for years: if you know what you're looking at in the sky -- meteors, satellites, planets, and so on -- a lot of UFO stories evaporate. The fact that so many reported UFOs turn out to be mundane objects is a pretty good sign that more than a few UFO enthusiasts aren't terribly familiar with observing the sky. I find that highly ironic.

For what it's worth, the ABC story did have a quote from an astronomer who also posits it's the Falcon 9, but they gave more space to the UFO guy, and put his claims after the astronomer's, giving them more weight.

So despite the nonsense you'll hear from the news sites and the bulletin boards that will claim this is some sort of transdimensional stargate warp, I think we have a pretty good idea that we actually do have a UFO here, as long as it's an Übercool Falcon (in) Orbit.

Tip o' the weather balloon to Ken Arthur, and to Robdotcom71 for the link to the Flickr pictures. Image credits: ABC News, user submitted by Destin Sparks and Henry Leef; SpaceX

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