Every now and again something weird and wonderful happens in the sky, and for a few minutes I’m totally perplexed about what it is.
And then there’s something that makes me literally gasp and say "WHAT THE FRAK WAS THAT?"
Yeah. Check out this amazing video:
Holy Haleakala! What was that?
The footage is from a webcam mounted outside the CFHT astronomical observatory in Hawaii (another view of it from a different webcam can be found here; sadly, both webcams are on Mauna Kea, not Haleakala). You see some stars and the horizon, then suddenly an ethereal pale arc pops into view. It rapidly expands into a thin circular shell, then fades away as it fills the view. The whole thing takes a few minutes to expand; you can see the stars moving during the event (some of the pixels on the webcam are very sensitive and make stationary "hot spots" in the field of view).
So what is it? Is it a trans-dimensional portal into the future, some wormhole from the Pegasus galaxy, or two alien spaceships battling it out?
In point of fact, we are seeing something related to space war…
I first saw this video on Starship Asterisk, the discussion forum for the wildly popular Astronomy Picture of the Day website. The conversation there about this event is going pretty well, and I think this whole thing has been nailed down to a reasonable series of events. First, let’s look at a still frame from the video:
I hate to make the obvious jokes, so I’ll simply say I was on this week’s Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe talking about methane on Mars and the tilt of Uranus. I’m glad they invited me on; I hadn’t heard of either of these stories until Steve Novella alerted me to them before we did the interview.
Basically, a new hypothesis has come out that the large tilt of Uranus (98°) is not from a collision, but instead had its natural tilt reinforced by a large moon that has since been ejected. Also, scientists tested the idea that the methane seen to change on Mars with the seasons might be from meteorites, and find that they don’t supply nearly enough to explain the observations. We also talk JREF, solar power, the Norway lights, and the usual nonsense. I just finished listening to the whole episode, and thought it was pretty good despite me being on it, so go give it a listen!
Hey, does this look vaguely familiar?
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.
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.
TASS 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.