Subscribe to New Scientist

Space

Feeds

Home |Space |Science in Society |Tech | News

Strange 'Norway spiral' was an out-of-control missile

Update: The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed on Thursday that it launched a Bulava missile on Wednesday and that the missile's third stage failed

It looked like a time-travelling vortex fit for Doctor Who, but a strange spiral observed in the skies above Norway on Wednesday morning was actually a failed Russian missile launch, says a Harvard astrophysicist who monitors space launches.

The giant, glowing white spiral was reportedly visible all over northern Norway between about 0645 and 0700 GMT. "It consisted initially of a green beam of light similar in colour to the aurora with a mysterious rotating spiral at one end," eye witness Nick Banbury of Harstad said, according to Spaceweather.com. "This spiral then got bigger and bigger until it turned into a huge halo in the sky with the green beam extending down to Earth."

Speculation that it was a bright meteor was quickly dismissed – in part because the apparition lasted for too long to be an incoming space rock. Suspicion then turned to an out-of-control missile.

That is exactly what it was, says Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of Jonathan's Space Report, a fortnightly email newsletter about space launches. "It's definitely a missile launch failure," he told New Scientist.

'Embarrassing setback'

He says it was most likely a failed test of Russia's submarine-launched Bulava ballistic missile, which is intended to be able to evade missile-defence systems.

"We know that the Russian Navy submarine Dmitry Donskoy is in the White Sea and was preparing for the 12th test launch of the Bulava missile, which has had numerous failures," he says.

Of the missile's 11 previous launches since 2005, six have been failures, a track record that might explain why Russia has reportedly denied a Wednesday launch, McDowell says: "This could be because another Bulava failure is a huge and embarrassing setback for their programme."

Spewing flame

Just how would a missile be able to create such a perfect spiral? McDowell says the shape suggests the failure occurred well above the atmosphere. If it had occurred at lower altitudes, atmospheric drag would have caused the missile to fall quickly to Earth, creating a downward-pointing corkscrew pattern whose contrails would have been blown "this way and that" by wind, he told New Scientist.

The Bulava missile has three stages that fire in succession as it climbs up in altitude. "Probably what happened is that stages 1 and 2 did just fine and were discarded in turn, and then stage 3 started burning and almost immediately went wrong," McDowell says.

He says the third stage's nozzle, which directs the rocket's exhaust plume, may have fallen off or been punctured, causing the exhaust to come out sideways instead of out the back. "The sideways thrust sends the rocket into a spin, spewing flame as it goes," he says.

"If thrust was terminated right away, then you wouldn't see the spiral," he continues. "The unusual thing this time is that the missile was allowed to carry on firing for a bit after it went wrong."

If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.

Have your say
Comments 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

This comment breached our terms of use and has been removed.

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 02:12:21 GMT 2009 by Peter

While a failed missile seems remotely plausible, the fact that the disc is frontal and has the blue/green plume, plus the perfectly expanding black filled halo....

It's a bit far fetched to simply say, "It's definitely a missile failure"....

I reckon this scientist is taking a stab in the dark and i find it interesting that New scientist is taking a very typical 'journalistic sensationalist' approach to many of it's articles. Stating the headline as a fact, then adding "says a Harvard astrophysicist", doesn't impress your market, NS.

Surely there's another plausible explanation that doesn't involve a failed military firework...

It went for 2 minutes.... Wouldn't a failed, out of control missile have destroyed itself well before, not to mention that for an out of control rocket, even outside the atmosphere to spiral in one plane perfectly is also a stretch.

We'll see what unfolds...

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 02:42:28 GMT 2009 by Norway blames russia, russia declines ok?

It's quite possible this was a failed missile. Although.. I was watching this, and alot of people north of the polar circle did notice this light.

I did not know missiles would make primarly blue light / green and a little yellow. Looked like a black hole in the atmosphere. Why let explosives damage the atmosphere, not like anyone heard a "bang".

If the media unfolds the truth, If people think it's so logical a missile causes a blue/green spiral spreading out like crazy, then fine believe the media.

I watched for the short time it was there, and i thought is that a black hole and then i found out it wasnt quite sad wish it was a black hole :(

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 03:48:15 GMT 2009 by Anders Feder

"Looked like a black hole"? How do you know what a black hole looks like? Have you ever seen one?

Besides, in a black hole gasses would swirl *inwards* due to gravity - not outwards.

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 10:29:38 GMT 2009 by Ross

A black hole wouldn't look like anything. It's a black hole.

Light can't escape it, rather anything passing within a certain radius of it gets sucked in so never reaches us.

I digress, sure maybe it was a rocket launch, but we can't possibly claim it's "definitely" this.

I doubt a rocket would stay in the same spot for so long, and produce such a mathematically simple shape (I'd expect it to be a bit more chaotic and all!). Plus it doesn't explain the cone shape of light going towards the ground visible in some videos (try bbc news website).

Maybe it was a hoax? something projected from the ground? Can't really think of anything else, although aliens would be exciting(!)

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 14:21:58 GMT 2009 by A little bit of pop science knowledge

Solely on the topic of Black Holes and not the missile.

"A black hole wouldn't look like anything. It's a black hole."

(Thinks to himself) This person likes shouting down people.

Accretion disk? Hawking radiation?

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 23:35:45 GMT 2009 by Oisin MAG. . .

"Besides, in a black hole gasses would swirl *inwards* due to gravity - not outwards."

Mmm but you cant see into a black hole so dont trough out your own theorys if ur not willing to think it was a missle in the first place.

And light cant escape a black hole because it would most probely be within the schwartchild radius and if light did make it out it would have no energy meaning an infanite wavelenght and we would never be able to detect it let alone see it.

Really? A Missile

Sat Dec 12 01:53:25 GMT 2009 by Medina Vrbanovic
http://www.chhs.nsw.edu.au/

black holes are simply mythical. They dont exist and are part of a conspiracy orchestrated by the wheelchair man... you know to whom i am refering. The 'wheel chair man' is part of a secret assassination program that protests against gay and lesbian people driving limosines that apply to be priests to the eskimos of saudi arabia, we must act now!!!

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 16:29:25 GMT 2009 by Daniel

It's quite possible that someone just pitched a video projector outside and used the fog as a canvas to fake the whole thing.

It certainly looks like a computer animation to me.

Really? A Missile

Sat Dec 12 00:50:19 GMT 2009 by Nick

It mostly amazes me we got a Russian explanation.

As to me the people who called it a photoshop trick, seams still much more plausible

If your a photographer

take a note of image distortion at high iso levels.

the photoshop object doesnt have this, while on other photos all other objects on the photo have this.

Ofcourse to complete this hoax you ask someone with 3Dstudio max or so to create a movie of it too.

And that completes the whole hoax.

Well that to me would be end of a funny practical joke.

But now the Russians have been put in place..,

What the hack is the west trying to cover up ?

Something gone wrong at the LHC resulting in this ??

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 02:45:11 GMT 2009 by Not everything is sensationalist

How is this headline "journalistic sensationalism"?? When I read "Norway spiral likely an out-of-control missile" I expect to read an article expressing the opinion of some scientist/author, hopefully with some supporting arguments/evidence. That's exactly what I found in this article, and the headline was perfectly descriptive. What alternative headline would you propose?

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 03:39:29 GMT 2009 by Anders Feder

It's perfectly plausible to think that a failing missile would spin in one plane - that's just basic physics. Spinning in one plane takes just a constant thrust vector. For it to *not* spin in just one plane, on the other hand, the thrust vector would have to be variable. How do you propose this variability would arise?

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 04:48:45 GMT 2009 by Peter

well, i'm more inclined to accept the missile story now, but with regards to your question about the variability, i suggest an axial rotation component to the missiles turbulent flight. Surely if it's failing to such a degree, it would spin axially as well..... I know what you are saying, but it doesn't totally gel for me.

Also, regarding the sansationalist journalism comment, i incorrectly referred the articles opening sentence, not the 'title', which included the term 'might be'. Sorry.

Regardless, it's a very cool sight.

Really? A Missile

Fri Dec 11 18:09:37 GMT 2009 by Troy H.

If there was a hole in the cone, it could explain the color of the flame and the spiral.

The color could be any number of substances burning, which wouldn't normally burn without the failure.

The spiral would be a combination of the majority of the thrust still being along the axis of the missile with a perturbing thrust coming out of the side of the cone, and gravity pulling down on the rocket. Also, if the missile spins for gyroscopic stability in flight, a hole in the cone of the rocket is going to produce a spiral flight path because the secondary thrust vector (out of the hole) would be rotating as well.

There is no projector in the world that would make something visible to that many people.

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 09:24:25 GMT 2009 by matt

Judging by other rocket trails i have seen on youtube and alot of discussion of bullshit like ufo wormholes I conclude that this is nothing more than a spectacular result of a failed missile.

It is a stunning set of pictures that have been created as a result of it though. Wow.

Please stop believing in ufo's and gov conspiracies, you are making yourself look even more stupid than you are.

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 13:27:47 GMT 2009 by Dom S

"Please stop believing in ufo's and gov conspiracies, you are making yourself look even more stupid than you are."

This comment has a hint of troll to it. Plus it makes YOU sound a bit on the ignorant side rather than the intended making people feel stupid.

Governments hide things all the time. They write laws and agreements (such as ACTA) without the input of the people and frequently cause conspiracies which the open-minded population choose to take an interest in and speculate on.

If you dont want to believe in UFOs or alien life or anything else which currently defies explanation or could have been hidden/masked by higher powers, go for it. Even if these things do exist, we may not even know they're there, for a start alien life could be composed of as yet unencountered materials or they could be so big or small that we cannot detect them.

If the Russians hadn't already confirmed this as a missile test (via mainstream media) i would say, "this video is clearly not of a missle, its a bloody projection, it looks flat on the sky (note the lack of stars visible suggesting a cloudy night, bang goes the upper atmosphere idea) and there's a beam of light going up to it..." it just doesnt look right being a missile, but hey-ho thats what the media tell us, so it must be true! /s

If the news wants to report it is a failed missle test, fine. But from the videos i've seen this does not look like a spiralling missile.

This comment breached our terms of use and has been removed.

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 17:03:48 GMT 2009 by Andrew

It was a missile, Russia confirmed.

Unless they are covering something up (said purely to counteract any internet sensationalists), which of course is very unlikely.

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 17:05:38 GMT 2009 by Andrew

Forgot the link,

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8406633.stm

On another conspiracy theorists viewpoint, the BBC could be covering something up.

Really? A Missile

Thu Dec 10 19:59:39 GMT 2009 by kb

It was santa on a failed test run. Sorry kids, no presents this year.

Really? A Missile

Fri Dec 11 14:52:57 GMT 2009 by T Bone

Here here - New Scientist's new found sensationalist leanings are really devaluing the publication. Why are you doing it?????????? Please stop - its pointless.

This comment breached our terms of use and has been removed.

Comments 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

All comments should respect the New Scientist House Rules. If you think a particular comment breaks these rules then please use the "Report" link in that comment to report it to us.

If you are having a technical problem posting a comment, please contact technical support.

A failed missile launch could be behind this strange vision (Image: Jan Petter Jorgensen/Rex Features)

A failed missile launch could be behind this strange vision (Image: Jan Petter Jorgensen/Rex Features)

ADVERTISEMENT

NASA to get budget boost for exploration, says analyst

20:25 11 December 2009

The agency is sure to get an injection of cash to rescue its faltering space programme, says a Washington insider – but probably not the $3 billion recommended

Second stalled wheel may doom Mars rover

23:39 08 December 2009

NASA's Spirit rover was already fighting an uphill battle to escape a sand trap; if a second wheel cannot be coaxed back into action, the rover may freeze to death

Burt Rutan: Behind the scenes at SpaceShipTwo roll-outMovie Camera

14:42 08 December 2009

The first private passenger-carrying spacecraft was unveiled last night. New Scientist shadowed its designer through a stormy evening of razzmatazz

California gives green light to space solar power

03:12 08 December 2009

The state has approved a deal in which the Pacific Gas and Electric Company will buy power beamed down from satellites beginning in 2016

Latest news

Motion-sensing phones that predict your every move

19:00 13 December 2009

Phones that learn their user's patterns of behaviour can use this information to provide a cheaper, more reliable service

Cave 'breathing' regulates growth of stalactites

10:00 13 December 2009

The way caves "breathe" from season to season is the true controller of stalactite growth – so estimates of ancient rainfall may be wrong

Wind farms don't affect property prices

10:00 12 December 2009

US government study of thousands of house sales across the country concludes that wind turbines take no toll on property values

NASA to get budget boost for exploration, says analyst

20:25 11 December 2009

The agency is sure to get an injection of cash to rescue its faltering space programme, says a Washington insider – but probably not the $3 billion recommended

TWITTER

New Scientist is on Twitter

Get the latest from New Scientist: sign up to our Twitter feed

ADVERTISEMENT

Partners

We are partnered with Approved Index. Visit the site to get free quotes from website designers and a range of web, IT and marketing services in the UK.

Login for full access