Saturday science subject: The spiral in the night sky

— 3:59 PM on December 12, 2009

If you saw something like this in the night sky, what would first come to your mind? A mishap at the Large Hadron Collider? An alien space ship flying out through a wormhole? As New Scientist reports, plenty of people had a chance to let their imaginations run wild last Wednesday—this phenomenon was "reportedly visible all over northern Norway between about 0645 and 0700 GMT."

As spectacular as the spiral in the night sky may have looked, the event that triggered it was nothing too extraordinary. New Scientist initially sought an explanation from Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who suspected the event had to do with a failed Russian rocket launch. Sure enough, the Russian Defense Ministry subsequently confirmed its latest Bulava missile had failed after a launch on Wednesday from the White Sea. New Scientist explains the phenomenon:

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.

Russian news agency ITAR-TASS describes Bulava missiles as "Russia's newest three-stage solid fuel rocket designed for 4th generation submarines of Project 955 'Borei.'" The missile has a range of about 5,300 miles and "is capable of carrying up to ten supersonic maneuvering re-entry vehicles with the capability to change the course and altitude of flight."

McDowell told New Scientist that six of the 11 Bulava missiles launched since 2005 have failed. He calls this latest failure an "embarrassing setback" for the program.

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