by James Oberg
In northern Norway in December, the sun never rises. For a few hours around noon the southern sky glows with bright twilight of the hidden sun, passing just below the horizon.
But human activity remains fixed on artificial timekeeping technology, and on December 9, 2009, residents awoke 'on schedule' to prepare for work and school. Many were outside shortly before 8 AM, the sky still dark, when an amazing light rose into the eastern sky where the sun would have appeared in a different season. But it wasn't a single bright shining orb they saw, it was an amazing spinning spiral that left a blue trail and lingered a few dozen seconds and then was swallowed up by a totally black nothingness.
Many of the witnesses had grabbed their pocketcams or cell phones, then quickly raced for their Internet connections.
That's how the sensation of the 'Norway spiral' was born, ten years ago. Combined with some tantalizing terrestrial coincidences, and soon reinforced by similar subsequent "sky spiral sightings" in Russia and Australia, an entirely new folklore phenomenon sprang up. A dozen bizarre theories burst into life, spread across the internet. As search engines can demonstrate, they still thrive.
It soon turned out that it really "just" was a rocket, performing strangely to be sure under unusual illumination conditions, but entirely terrestrial in origin [as were all the others]. It was a military missile code-named 'Bulava', with three solid-fuel stages, designed for launch from submarines. But in the modern Internet culture, that prosaic [if 'Space Age'] explanation has been vehemently rejected in favor of more exciting theories, all of them mutually exclusive but all of them firmly based on the conviction that no human rocket could ever look like this [and subsequent] events.
Aside from the delightful story of how the mystery was correctly solved there is a less pleasant challenge. It's a sad realization that vast pockets of popular culture are not merely uninformed about the basics of 'rocket science', they are actively and enthusiastically misinformed. Worse, they are often cynically DISinformed by on-line media outlets which make their money by attracting credulous visitors. What can be done to remedy this remains as uncertain as any genuine outer space mystery.
Almost immediately, a dozen different explanations for the 'Norway spiral' sprang up on the Internet. Aside from the stock claim of UFO aliens, there were proponents of 'wormholes' [widely depicted in movies and video games], an ionospheric manipulation of a local research facility called ' HAARP', a similar secretive lab called 'EISCAT', or a mythical Pentagon secret weapon called 'Blue Beam', an upward projected hologram, or some other fictional device designed by Nikola Tesla, or some kind of supernatural manifestation such as a demon or an angel, or a magical warning [or congratulations] to the Nobel Committee which was about to grant Barack Obama a 'Peace Prize in Oslo, or another stab at space aliens.
Disbelief in the 'official explanation' was both instinctively distrustful and based on a number of serious questions. The apparition appeared very close, stopping dead still in the sky in Norwegian airspace, yet no advance warning had ever been given. It didn't look like any rocket most folks had ever seen before, and the weirdly glowing cloud implied an unknown energy source. It appeared to float and defy gravity by drifting horizontally. At the end of the perfect spiraling the apparition the plume was swallowed by an expanding 'black hole' that closely matched Hollywood SFX. And previously failing rockets as shown in videos always dropped in flaming zig-zags after exploding loudly, leaving wreckage falling to Earth.
The event was quickly identified as a Soviet missile test, an explanation just as quickly rejected by dubious netizens. The 'missile explanation' united all the different theory promoters into harmonious derision. Here's a selection of typical comments on youtube videos .
Agumonkk -- if it was a rocket, then how is it that the "exhaust trails" are in a PERFECT spiral? that thing has to be pretty far away, and that would mean that the spiral is HUGE. how can the exhaust from a rocket stay in a perfect spiral for that long? the wind surely would have dispersed it.
phuckoff mmkay -- Bright blue circular light from a failed missile? They usually explode and fall down in a flaming fireball, wouldnt you say?
Vladolenin --A missle? L.O.L. They DO think we're stupid. Missles dont grow into dark spheres that CONSUME LIGHT.
Sxr5a -- a Russian missile flies DIRECTLY over Norway, violating their airspace, and the Norweigians do not make a peep about it? Does this make sense?
Poopdome56 -- its sad that there are still ignorant people out there that actually believe this is a rocket.
The.PhantomPain -- that is not a missile i don't care what anyone says. the large hadron collider created a wormhole. it even behaves like a wormhole. it doesn't behave like a missile
NassimHarameinVedas -- ANYONE who thinks this was caused by a "failed missile launch" is beyond brainwashed and retarded. Missiles have been launched since the 50's ok . . . and we've NEVER seen anything like this or heard about it.
Sylph Viper -- That UFO was seen during NIGHT HOURS. And rocket fumes or exhaust DO NOT GLOW OR EMIT LIGHT. The missile theory is by far the most idiotic thing presented yet.
WinduChi6 -- The other major problem for this being a rocket is, a rocket normally will be traveling at velocities in range of 1,000s mph. For anybody having knowledge of the dynamics of motion; a slight change in trajectory angle of a object traveling at several 1,000mph will generate enormous g-forces or centrifugal forces that will tear a rocket in to pieces, that will generate a, with combustive fuel on board, a explosive fire ball of bright orange-yellow-red color. So, the ICBM missile story is a LIE!
Special conditionsIt would turn out that missile and space activity could [and had been] creating various forms of sky spirals for many years. The key feature which made them unusual ['once in a lifetime' for most observers] was the requirement for a narrow range of illumination conditions that rarely coincided. The rocket had to engage in plume-forming activity, either thrusting or dumping leftover fuel. The sky had to be dark [and clear], but to illuminate the plume, the sun had to be only slightly below the horizon, preferably lighting the plume from behind [as seen by observers]. Calculations with Internet-based astronomy tools showed this was exactly the situation in these two December 2009 spiral events.
Mathematics also helped solve the initial mystery: WHERE exactly was the source of the apparition? How far away was it, really, since judging distance to an unknown-sized out-of-focus blob in the night sky is notoriously prone to random guesswork. That's especially true for objects near the horizon, which based on analogies with familiar objects such as aircraft lights, can be imagined to be nearby, perhaps within tens of meters, perhaps a few tens of kilometers at most.
Trigonometry came to the rescue, aided by old-fashioned 'orienteering' [finding true direction]. Accurate line-of-sight azimuths could be derived from the photos, which showed recognizable silhouettes of nearby mountains [and star backgrounds]. Combined with exact knowledge of the observer locations this gave quite accurate angles. Because such azimuths could be derived from several sites along the northern Norwegian coast, they allowed triangulation of the geographic location of the object forming the spectacle. It was far to the east, over Russian territorial waters. This was fully consistent with the explanation that a military missile test aimed at the normal impact zone in Siberia was the cause of the sightings.
An entirely reasonable follow-on question is to ask why, if the rocket was over Russian coastal waters, it was only seen from Norway and Sweden, but not from Russian cities in the northwest corner of that country that were much closer. The valid explanation involves timing and the round shape of the Earth.
Over northern Norway [the only part of the country that wasn't cloud-covered, as weather satellite images show] the skies were still dark. At the same time, regions farther southeast would be experiencing pre-dawn sky brightening, when stars become invisible behind the sky glare. Meanwhile, any object at very high altitude [such as an artificial satellite or long-range missile] would be fully lit by the still-not-risen sun [as indeed the missile plume was].
So even if the skies were cloudless over Murmansk and Arkhangelsk and nearby regions, the dawn sunlight would have masked any space objects passing nearby. Numerous websites [such as heavens-above.com, or wolframalpha.com] offer programs to determine exact solar illumination conditions for any site at any date/time. One can also obtain the sun's "depression angle" for a nighttime location, and from it then approximate the altitude required to be in sunlight ["Grahn's Law" states that the altitude of the overhead shadowed region boundary in kilometers is close to the square of the depression angle in degrees].
The TIMING of this launch near dawn at launch site meant that while observers to the west still had a dark sky, the plume was high enough to be in sunlight. So it was visible from regions to the west but not in sky-brightened regions east of the launch site.
Some skeptics of the missile explanation suggested that a missile test would have been announced in advance, and the "missile explanation" would not then have appeared until only AFTER the event, as a made-up ad hoc excuse.
But the missile test launch was indeed openly discussed ahead of time. Moscow's "Kommersant" newspaper reported on November 3, 2009, that the launch would occur in a few weeks. Closer to launch, official warnings [called NOTAMS] were released for the period in early December where the test had been delayed to. An article by Vladimir Voronov, "Bulava Stupidity", in Moscow's 'Sobesednik' newspaper, reported on November 17: "The Bulava missile complex with which it is intended to equip our submarines is terminally unfortunate: either it doesn't fly, or it flies -- but off course, or it completely explodes. The next tests have been officially announced for 24 November, but there are major doubts that these, too, will be successful." A few days later, Moscow Interfax-AVN news agency reported on November 24, "The next test launch of a Bulava sea-based intercontinental ballistic missile is expected to be carried out in early December, a missile industry spokesman told Interfax on Tuesday."
As already stated, all worldwide activities that are hazardous to air and sea traffic are announced in advance in a system called 'Notice to Airmen and Mariners' or NOTAMS. The USSR and China did it, too. There are standard public-accessible data bases containing all such notices that sea and air traffic controllers consult regularly. The notice contains the locations, altitude ranges, and the time intervals that traffic is warned to avoid. True, the messages are written in technical formats that must be used for interpreting them, but the coding is straightforward. News agencies rarely if ever note or publicize such routine information
All these precursor warnings in both the Russian news media and on world air/sea travel websites effectively answered the 'not-a-missile' claim that an absence of such warnings prove it was not a missile. Just the opposite is true.
Some 'rocket science' may cast more light on the nature of the apparition, and of the failure.
The frequency of spiral effects for Russian missile tests, and their rarity during US military missile tests from Florida and California, may merely be due to a difference in geography. The central issue is the distance to the target zone and how this influences the missile's ascent performance. The US has entire wide oceans to shoot missiles to full range, but although Russia is a wide country, even the farthest part of eastern Siberia is still well short of matching the range needed to reach North American targets, which determines the maximum operational capability of any ICBM. Full-range Russian tests [which do occur occasionally] would impact in mid-Pacific, near Hawaii. They are rare because they are easily tracked by US surveillance systems and may leave top secret hardware where it can be retrieved by US devices.
This range limitation means that to avoid overshooting the far end of the in-country test range, Soviet missiles had to restrain their final velocity well below the maximum. They had to cut off thrusting earlier than what they were designed for.
Rocket engines that use liquid fuels could accomplish this easily, by just closing the fuel flow valves. But solid rocket motors, burning not from the hind end but from a length-wise central cavity, were next to impossible to extinguish on demand. So a design was developed [both in the US and the USSR] to allow the engines to continue burning to fuel exhaustion, but while doing so, just stop thrusting forward during this terminal phase.
This was accomplished by installing openable windows ["thrust ports"] near the nose of the booster, to enable venting exhaust gasses forward so as to null out the continuing [but much reduced] backwards flow. Since usually there was a nuclear warhead sitting directly atop this stage, the thrusting had to be accomplished with twin opposite-side vents facing sideways but canted forward, like a letter 'Y'. As a result, at the moment chosen by the control program, it could cut off pushing forward while continuing to burn harmlessly until all fuel was consumed.
Solid-rocket builder THIOKOL discusses this on its website: "Thrust Termination Port. == A port provided in the rocket motor case to vent combustion gases so that rocket operation can be terminated. The port usually is provided for in the head end of the motor so that gas flow is effectively diverted from the nozzle. The port is formed by firing a shaped charge of explosive placed against the outside of the forward end of the motor."
As an additional flight technique, the last stage also usually also rotates rapidly, both for stability and also as countermeasure to the effects of anti-missile energy weapons. This rotary motion creates strikingly regular double-spiral patterns similar to rotating twin-nozzle lawn sprinkler. As with the lawn sprinkler, nothing is spinning AROUND the central point, every particle is moving directly AWAY from the origin, but each subsequent particle is ejected in a slightly different direction, creating the visual impression of a solid, moving ring.
This is worth repeating. A spiral form can be created by linear expulsion of material from a spinning object. Nothing is actually MOVING in a spiral AROUND the central object.
What exactly HAD gone wrong is still a deeply guarded military secret in Moscow. The Bulava ICBM program was most troubled Russian missile development effort in half a century. Officially, this failure occurred late in ascent during the third stage performance. Its exact nature has never been disclosed, but it might have been loss of attitude control and tumbling, or partial rupture of propellant casing wall, or [my preference] the premature activation of thrust venting. But it any case, the malfunction was high enough for its consequences to remain visible for a minute or so.
The second Russian test may not have been pure coincidence, but merely reflect practical operational limits. Sometimes, different missile tests that rely on common tracking facilities are timed close together to keep special deployed teams on station. The December 10 launch [announced in Moscow] was part of a new program to test maneuverable warheads to evade US missile defense system [ten years later, the test program continues, it most recently launched on November 29, setting off new UFO panics in Russia and central Asia]. Launch of a surplus 'Topol' missile from Kapustin Yar [on the lower Volga] to Sary Shagan [in Kazakhstan] was right over ground observation points just after sunset, on purpose, presumably to enable high-precision optical tracking.
To sum up, the technological puzzle was straightforward in its iron-clad solution, but the sociological/cultural puzzle is more amorphous and daunting.
The spectacular apparition observed in Norway on December 9, 2009 was created by a Russian sub-launched ICBM, called 'Bulava'. The missile was following a standard test profile into Kamchatka. Weather was clear and plume was backlit by the pre-dawn sun. Some anomaly during third stage caused the object to eject plumes laterally. This spiral-forming phase lasted unusually long but there had been a few earlier precedents. Because of its great distance, it was easy to misinterpret speed and location.
These kinds of events will be occurring more frequently [and video recordings will be spread even wider] in years to come. Only by recognizing these 'new-normal' prosaic stimuli will people be able to identify and isolate any truly anomalous aerial phenomena.