Mysterious Missile Launch Seen From Space Station

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Last night, ESA/Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano posted some bizarre photos via his Twitter account from the International Space Station. A mystery rocket contrail could be seen rising above the Earth’s twilight horizon.

A missile launch seen from space: an unexpected surprise! pic.twitter.com/mbWI209ELv — Luca Parmitano (@astro_luca) October 11, 2013

This oddity was all the more strange as there were no scheduled launches by NASA (due to the government shutdown) or from any U.S. commercial spaceflight company. Russia and Europe also had no scheduled launches at that time. Still, something had been fired into space.

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One photograph shows the wiggly trail of a white contrail — exhaust and water vapor created by a rocket’s passage through the atmosphere; odd pattern forming after being buffeted by high altitude winds. Then, in another dramatic snapshot, Parmitano posted a weird-looking cloud dominating the photograph caused by the rocket disintegrating over the Earth (pictured top).

An immense cloud forms outside the atmosphere after the disintegration pic.twitter.com/PshgE1W7CJ — Luca Parmitano (@astro_luca) October 11, 2013

NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, who is also working on the station, also tweeted his view of the cloud, saying, “Saw something launch into space today. Not sure what it was but the cloud it left behind was pretty amazing.”

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Seeing an unannounced rocket launch out of the window would have likely been pretty unnerving for the crew. So what was that ULO (Unidentified Launching Object)?

After doing some digging, Nancy Atkinson over at Universe Today found the answer, courtesy of the Russian Forces blog:

The Strategic Rocket Forces carried out a successful test launch of a Topol/SS-25 missile on October 10, 2013. The missile was launched at 17:39 MSK (13:39 UTC) from Kapustin Yar to the Sary Shagan test site in Kazakhstan. According to a representative of the Rocket Forces, the test was used to confirm characteristics of the Topol missile, to test the systems of the Sary Shagan test site, and “to test new combat payload for intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

The Topol missile is a new addition to Russia’s military, the first intercontinental ballistic missile to be developed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, are used as nuclear weapon delivery systems, capable of being launched into space and delivering their payloads thousands of miles away. The 52 ton (at launch) missile has an operational range of 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles).

According to the Information Telegraph Agency of Russia news agency, a spokesperson from Russia’s Defense Ministry said the test was needed to “confirm the stability of the basic performance characteristics of this class of missiles during the extension of the life, practice of measuring systems for various types of measuring, testing warheads of intercontinental ballistic missiles.” (From translated text.)

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What’s more, it has been reported that the missile test was a success — a “conditional target” at the Sary-Shagan anti-ballistic missile testing range in Kazakhstan was struck.

In December 2009, a similar mystery cloud appeared over Norwegian skies. The huge spiral being back lit by the pre-dawn sun was identified, again, as a Russian ICBM test. However, the spectacular spiral was caused by a failed submarine-launched Bulava rocket from the White Sea. The huge spiral was being created by the venting of fuel in to the stratosphere as the missile tumbled out of control.

It seems likely that last night’s orbital cloud encounter was created by the disintegration of the upper stage of the Topol’s rocket.

This is a potent reminder that, only a day after World Space Week ended — a celebration that marked the anniversary of the signing of the Outer Space Treaty that prohibited the militarization of space — humans are still testing the delivery mechanisms for weapons of mass destruction as peaceful orbital assets — like the civilian ISS — look on, resigned to the fact that war continues to be a potent driver for our species.

Image credit: ESA/NASA/Luca Parmitano

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