Some pictures just have it all. Like, say, a rocket and a laser and an aurora:
OK, that’s awesome. All it needs is a rampaging T-Rex to be the greatest single picture ever taken. [Click to enalfvénate.]
So what you’re seeing here is a wide-angle lens time exposure of a rocket launch on February 18, 2012, from Fairbanks Alaska at the Poker Flat Research Range. The aurorae are obvious enough; they’re the green glow in the sky. The bright streak is the rocket going up, and the pink hook halfway up is the first stage dropping away — note how the streak dims from the ground up to that point, then brightens again when the second stage ignited.
The green streak on the left is a laser being shot into the sky. Lasers excite (give energy to) atoms and molecules in the atmosphere, and that can be used to measure what’s going on up there. The beam appears to curve because this is a wide angle lens which distorts the geometry of the image.
So why the launch? On board the rocket was the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfvén resonator (MICA) mission, designed to measure the magnetic and electric fields high above the Earth during an aurora — so it’s no coincidence that you’re seeing the northern lights here. Alfvén waves are a way for magnetic fields to move energy around, and they’re generated in certain kinds of aurorae. By measuring them with MICA, we can learn more about how the Sun’s magnetically-driven interacts with Earth’s own magnetic field, producing aurorae. And it’s a good time to do this: the Sun has been spitting out lots of energy lately, which has been generating aurorae left and right. As we head into the peak of the current solar cycle — sometime next year, probably — it’ll be the
green golden age for studying how it affects the Earth.
Image credit: Lee Wingfield, NASA Wallops
Scott Wiessinger produces video for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center — my old stomping ground, and I did some work with the video folks while I was there, too — and he sent me links to two very cool videos he put together recently.
In early June the Sun erupted, letting loose a huge plume of plasma from its surface which then fell back down along magnetic field lines in a display the likes of which I had never seen before. I created a video (at the link above) which was far and away the most popular I’ve ever done, garnering nearly 1.5 million views as I write this.
But Scott’s video of the event is much, much cooler:
[Don't forget to set the resolution as high as possible!]
Breathtaking, isn’t it? The video is greatly sped up; the whole event took many hours to complete. All the different animations were taken in the ultraviolet, where the highly-energetic plasma erupting from the Sun emits strongly. You can really see that the plasma does not fall along ballistic trajectories (the usual arcs due to gravity) but instead moves along the magnetic field lines, sometimes twisting around in non-intuitive ways. Beautiful, graceful, and stunning.
And I love the music*.
The second video is from a camera mounted on a sounding rocket, a rocket that goes essentially straight up and back down. At its highest point it goes up nearly 300 km (180 miles), well into space. It was carrying an instrument to observe the Sun in the ultraviolet.
I fly a lot, and I’ve seen some strange stuff out the window. But I am totally jealous of a user on reddit who goes by the handle time, because he was flying recently and the flight attendant told him to look out the window. And when he did, he saw this:
See that vertical white plume in the background? That’s the vapor trail from Thursday’s launch of a monster Delta IV rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. It was carrying a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office — that is, a spy sat.
How cool would it be to see something like that out your window? He took a series of pictures of the launch, all showing the twisting trail as the rocket took the satellite to orbit.
I’ve seen three rocket launches up close in my life: one was an Delta that happened to go up while I was in Florida, another was the Space Shuttle carrying a camera I worked on up to Hubble, and the very first one I ever saw — get this — was a Saturn V carrying David Scott, James Irwin, and Al Worden to the Moon for Apollo 15. I was a little kid, but it left quite an impression on me. Watching a rocket launch is a visceral thrill, and if you ever get the chance, take it. It’s an amazing experience.
[UPDATE 2: I just heard that space guy James Oberg will be on the last segment of Rachel Madddow's show on MSNBC tonight to talk about this!]
[UPDATE 1: See bottom of post; I knew it!]
Earlier in the morning today (around 8:00 a.m. local time) this weird thing was seen over the skies of Norway:
My first reaction when I saw that was, "What the FRAK is THAT?!" My second thought was, "Photoshop". But then I saw lots of pictures of this on a bunch of different Norwegian media, so I don’t think it’s a digital hoax. Then videos started surfacing, like this one, which clearly show the spiral spinning. It’s not just a static picture, whatever this thing was; it was really in the sky.
However, after a moment, I realized this must be a rocket, most likely spiraling out of control. I don’t understand all the details — I don’t have all the info yet — but a rocket fits what we’re seeing here. First, this was seen all over Norway, so it must have been at a high altitude to be so visible. Second, the blue spiral angling down to the right is clearly due to perspective. A rocket spiraling around, and coming up from the lower right, would appear to make tight spirals when it was far away and bigger ones as it got closer.
Third, you can actually see the bright white spiral spinning in the videos. That threw me for a second, to be honest, but after a moment I figured that it makes sense if the rocket is headed more or less straight toward the camera. Whatever it is being lit up (exhaust, or a leaking payload?) would appear to expand in a spiral like water from a spinning sprinklerhead. The spiral itself is not spinning any more than water from the sprinkler is; that’s an illusion of motion.
Fourth, after a few moments, a black disk appears to expand in the center of the white spiral, as seen in this picture (it’s a little fuzzy; you can see the person taking it must have used a long exposure because foreground lights are jittery, but you get the idea). That’s exactly what I would expect if whatever is being ejected by the rocket ran out; the arms of the spiral would expand away from the center, leaving black emptiness in the middle.
So that’s my hypothesis. A rocket got out of control, perhaps losing a stabilizer, and started to spiral. The two spirals, different in shape, size, and color, indicate something happened in the middle of all this (the rocket second stage fired while still spinning, or something else started leaking out), changing the rocket’s direction. Then, when the fuel or whatever ran out, the white spiral began to disappear from the inside out as the material expanded in space.
So who launched it? The Russians are a likely guess, but –shocker — they’re denying it. I’d love to know and find out what the details are, but whoever shot it up and whatever the purpose, I’m pretty sure what we’re seeing here is a rocket launch that didn’t go exactly according to plan.
Note: there are a lot of stories online about this with more very cool pictures: The Sun and The Daily Mail have it in English, while Norwegian media include VG Nett, Altaposten.no, NRK.no, Framtidinord.no, Nordlis.no, and amazing videos can be seen here and here.
Photos: Jan Petter Jørgensen and Morten Kristiansen. Tip o’ the payload bay to the many folks who alerted me to this story!
Final Update, I should think (Feb 5): The story I outline below is almost certainly false. My source, Jonathan McDowell, who runs Jonathon’s Space Report, is a noted expert on satellites, orbits, and such, and he throws the flag on this one. Here is his complete email to me:
As the X-Prize competitors have shown, such a project is not trivial and could not be realistically carried out in secret. Greenland’s not a great site for this anyway. Chinese TV report has not made it onto the wires here. “being successfully tracked” implies still up, which implies orbital, and that’s clearly beyond the state of the billionaire art. No evidence of such an entrepreneur Neil Abraham in a quick google search. Contrast e.g. “Nick Corfield”, “Charles Simonyi”…etc etc.
I conclude, a deliberate and utter fabrication.
I agree with Jonathon. This is some sort of story being spread deliberately. Some people think it has to do with the movie Iron Man, but the characters name in that flick is different. So I’m not sure what this is all about, but I am pretty sure it’s not true.
Update: My source – an expert in these things — has called this story "complete nonsense". I am posting this now to try to stop this from getting bigger; but as yet I do not have permission to use my source’s name. When my source contacts me again, I’ll post more.
There is a rumor going around that an American billionaire has built his own rocket, launched himself into space, and has apparently been lost.
I know nothing beyond the info in that linked article. It sounds ridiculous, but years ago there was a guy who was planning on doing just such a thing (though he was not a billionaire). I have serious doubts, of course, but I have some friends who may know more about this, and I’ve sent out email. When I get more info, I’ll post it here. If any BABloggees have heard anything, let me know! Leave a comment here.
Edited to add: It occurs to me that the website linked has the URL of memes.org, so I wonder if this is a fake story designed to see how rumors spread. Well, I noted above that it sounds like baloney to me, and I have feelers out to track anything down. Maybe, if this is a joke, we can staunch it quickly.