Thursday, December 10, 2009

Briefly unidentified flying objects

This week in Norway, folks got an interesting show in the early morning sky. A spinning disc appeared to rise over the horizon, trailed by a tail of bluish light. It floated there for a few minutes, then disappeared into an expanding circle of blackness. No sound was heard.

The science-fiction aficionado in me would have loved it if the aliens had landed shortly thereafter. The space aficionado in me said, "hey, that looks like a tumbling rocket."

So let's sort out what actually happened. Here is a time-lapse photo of the event:

You are getting sleeeeepy....

A huge alien pinwheel with a tractor beam, right? It's an impressive display. Video, though, showed that the most striking elements of the photo were, for the most part, artifacts of taking a long exposure:

Spin, spin, spin, poof.

It sure looks like something venting gases, dunnit? A rocket, maybe? But the Russians--the only people with North Sea-based launch capability--shrugged and said, "it wasn't us." Hmmm.

Meanwhile, here is a computer simulation of a rocket stage with a semi-functional booster engine and a propellant leak or misfiring guidance rocket. Look familiar?

Physics at its most dizzying.

In the end, it turns out that the Russians were just shrugging for public benefit. They had, indeed, launched a rocket from a submarine in the North Sea and it had, in fact, not worked precisely as it was designed to.

So there were no aliens. But at least it was a pretty light show for a cold December morning.

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