Thursday, January 31, 2019


Information can be encoded in different ways, and writing it down in words is only the most common method. Drawings, dances, music, and other media are other ways that humans spread information. Nature has its own schemes, from DNA/RNA to hormonal indicators to shapes, motions, and physical traces of objects both living and non-living.

A 1990 movie about a Khoisan bushman who could expertly 'read' the land and the physical environment [sound, smell, light/shadow, flows of wind and water, etc] made that profound point sweetly and subtly when he is depicted as he realizes that a stranger he was trying to rescue saw everything he showed her, but had no idea what any of it meant. She was, in terms of his own universe, illiterate.


Just as with….

 Plumes have different manifestations depending on....


The most basic parameter that an ascent rocket plume can provide  perceptive observer is its altitude, because of one spectacular change in appearance at a known altitude range. As the rocket climbs out of the atmosphere, the air density thins rapidly. After a short while it is too thin to support winged [or buoyant] craft, and soon thin enough not to destroy objects traveling through it at near-orbital [or higher] speeds. This transition occurs between 80 and 100 kilometers [50 and 65 miles] approximately. It is called the Karman boundary, or sometimes -- if  precise number is needed] the Karman Line. Just for picking even numbers, Europeans like '100 km', while US Air Force rocket planes [and NASA's X-15] specified 50 miles. 

A rocket plume's shape changes dramatically at this boundary. In lower, thicker air, the plume is constrained and suspended in air, broadening only slowly, while also being quickly kinked by high-altitude crosswinds.  But as the rocket enters the Karman boundary the plume widens dramatically, and the plume particles are no longer stopped [and then supported] by air molecules -- instead, they fly out of the engine on unconstrained ballistic paths, creating a wide fan-like structure which rapidly collapses as the particles spread and then fall into the upper atmosphere where they disperse. The lower sub-Karman trail can linger for an hour or so,    




Because the most spectacular plumes are at twilight, there is an additional clue to read...


The next important parameter that a rocket plume's appearance provides is absolute size.  


[under construction]


under construction


One of the major features of an observed space plume is the line-of-sight azimuth to the apparition, as it changes over the period of the observation. Together with an accurate knowledge of the observer's location, this can provide a vector pointing towards the object. When combined with a similar reading from another site some distance away [hundreds of kilometers, or more] this can provide an approximate location of the point which the object is over. Knowing the distance, and adding in another factor, the observed elevation angle, the actual altitude of the object above Earth's surface can be approximated.

I'm using a handheld compass to get azimuth on Russian launch pad [and will determine distance by measuring time it takes for initial burst of engine noise to reach observation point], to verify which of several pads on Google-Earth image was used.  

There's only one catch with high-in-the sky rocket plumes. Among the hundreds of detailed observations I've studied, NOBODY had access to a magnetic compass or thought to use any other navigation functions of a handheld device [or to go back the next day WITH a compass to take sightings on horizon landmarks]. So the challenge is to derive the viewing azimuth solely from what's in the recorded images.

There are at least four methods to do this. First, if the sky is dark enough, stars may be visible, or the moon, and on-line programs can provide precise sky positions if the time/location of the event is known. Second, in the case of dashcam videos, the precise street may be identifiable [or the witness will provide it when queried], and using Google street-view will often locate the exact point along the street that the images were made -- the street azimuth can be provided by the application and the angle off from dead ahead can be estimated from the images. Third, a recognizable structure may allow orientation to be determined [examples: Tien An Min Square, or the Kiev seaport train terminal building, or Disneyland pavilions], which with on-line maps can be converted to azimuths.  Fourth, in daytime, shadows of poles, building, or tall trees can be interpreted to indicate sun angle, that can be converted to azimuth with on-line astronomy applications [this method was used with the Chelyabinsk bolide, but I've never found it useful with rocket plumes which rarely even can be seen in full daylight]. 

Here are some starfield examples:

Even when stars are not visible, often the Moon is in the FOV:

Video of KYSS missile plume includes moon in FOV

When nothing is recognizable on the celestial sphere, the next most useful reference method is to identify the road the image [or dashcam video] was taken on. This can be labor-intensive [or require queries to the video poster], but again, in a surprisingly large number of cases, it works.

Finally, if you are lucky enough to get imagery with recognizable structures [especially with a sufficient distance between structures], the location of the observer can be estimated with adequate precision so that utilization of Google-Earth and 'street view' will work fine.

In special cases, a single good azimuth can provide accurate location/range to the plume. This requires the rocket's ground track to be accurately known, which is often true for initial flight paths of satellite launches of ICBM tests [which even in Russia usually have announced launch and landing points].


Determining target elevation is tricky since observers are rarely proficient in "hand-measuring" the sky [although occasionally you may get excellent estimates]. Here's where any images of witnesses can provide important insights -- their visual line of sight, or even just the angle at which they are holding their cameras, can provide workable estimates.

On rare occasions an image with a structure at known distance with estimatable height [how many floors, for example] can also be used as a measuring stick.


Also rare [but priceless when they DO become available] are videos from a street where overhead trolley lines provide a solid reference frame for even subtle motions of the plume, eliminating the effects of the maddingly frustrating tendency of imagers to pan/zoom and just bounce their camera aiming.

There is an entirely different approach to measuring distance to an on-orbit rocket plume, using an entirely different physical principle. The rocket itself draws an absolute-size measuring stick in the sky, that can be read.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


Spacecraft returning to Earth create nearly-horizontal artificial meteors, which often resemble natural meteors but have the advantage to investigators of being well documented, and sometimes predictable. They also serendipitously create ‘control experiments’ in eyewitness perception and recollection of sudden startling sky spectaculars that can be generalized into assessing other such reports from non-spacecraft stimuli.

During its lifetime, the space shuttle program created massive fireballs as the 100-ton vehicles entered the atmosphere and slowed for a runway landing. For landings in Florida, and depending on the orbital paths they descended from, these fireballs could be passing overhead as far south as the Yucatan, to due eastwards across Texas, to coming across the Great Lakes.

If the entry was in darkness, the view from inside the spacecraft was ‘like flying through a neon tube’, especially since there was an overhead window and the orbiter was pitched so far nose-high that the window saw straight back along the fiery trail.

Shuttle fireball view at 46:00 into

Overhead window view

The variations in flight path, time-of-day- and weather created several opportunities for sightings from the NASA-Houston area [where it was doing Mach 20 about 60 km up], and I saw four of them, including the first [STS-11, Feb 1984], when nobody knew what to expect – and we were all blown away by the spectacle. 

One cross-country entry was described by a sequence of witness reports that I compiled here:

Paul Maley’s excellent accounts are linked here: TBS

Since events were well publicized in advance, they rarely led to published ‘UFO reports’. However, the Columbia catastrophe in Feb 2003 led to some significant misinterpretations of photos taken as the fireball crossed California, when an image suggested it had been struck by high-altitude lightning. Here’s what the photo actually showed.

LATEST REPORTS [through 2018]

Latet reports for critiques and suggestions:

Observations of the SpaceX launch on October 7, 2018:

Observation of the SpaceX deorbit burn on October 7, 2018:

Public misinterpretations of the SpaceX launch on October 7, 2018:

Observations of the Soyuz launch on December 3, 2018:

NROL maneuver  Oct 2015

Monday, January 14, 2019


Some scientific missions make quick up-down flights to deploy chemical tracers that display features of Earth’s magnetic fields [‘barium cloud’ missions]. They are usually widely publicized and generally recognized as human experiments. But in one particular case, errors in the date and location of a report made years after the event prevented immediate correlation of the sighting with  known launch.

Jimmy Carter (president 1977-81) witnessed an unexplained aerial phenomena in Leary, Ga., in 1969 two years before becoming governor of Georgia. Based on a more accurate determination of where Carter was, and the date, a very suggestive 'hit' can be made by a documented NASA barium cloud rocket launched at that time and reported in local newspapers the next day.

It's fair to point out that UFO promoters have used this story for decades without ANY of them uncovering the original report's errors in place and date OR the remarkable coincidence of the sighting with a 'classic' pseudo-UFO stimulus. 


People have been watching artificial satellites since 1957 (alerted by news reports, I saw the Sputnik booster slowly flashing one autumn evening just after my 13th birthday) as lights crossing the dawn and dusk skies. They’re not particularly spectacular except for what they represent.

But sometimes the satellite is doing something unusual. Some fly in formation, usually in long-term alignments, at other times briefly during rendezvous or separation maneuvers. Some release fluids that form brief comet-like streaks. Once in a great while, a few deploy long tethers which are actually visible, mostly with binoculars. These on-orbit apparitions are fairly well documented across the Internet. 

Sometimes these multiple satellite formations are misperceived as lights on a single large object, and it becomes a ‘UFO report’ --

Formation flying with shuttles or space station was regularly observable [I first saw this when STS-7 deployed and then retrieved the SPAS-01 satellite in 1983, from outside Mission Control, through binoculars]. “Space chases” when a rendezvousing vehicle was 15-20 minutes behind its target were particularly intriguing to watch because the chaser’s path was clearly displaced in the sky from its just-seen target satellite.  They were actually on the same path, but Earth’s rotation carried the observer sideways during the interval between the two passes, so the paths did not look identical.

 Shuttle waste water dumps are described here --  --

… with a discussion of the different sizes of particles here:

Despite what sites like this claim, the water wasn’t urine, it was a byproduct of the electricity-producing ‘fuel cells’ [on space station visits, the water was bagged and transferred to the station, and only dumped on the way back to Earth]…

Since the space station recycles its waste water [mostly urine since it does not use fuel cells for power], it rarely dumps water. Occasional thrusting by docked supply vehicles boosts the station higher and might be visible from the ground, but I’m not aware of any reports.


In recent years a new player in space launches has appeared, the SpaceX company and its Falcon-9 launch vehicle. As the flight rate increased, more and more ’space clouds’ were being generated by the upper stage, including thrust plumes and fuel dumps, sometimes  under the unique twilight conditions that make them visible from the ground. Because SpaceX is a private corporation, the actual timing and physical nature of such events was rarely discussed either in advance or even afterwards, so it became an ‘attractive mystery’ for analysis by ground observers. 

The value of such analysis was demonstrated on January 8, 2018 when a mysterious military mission, carrying a payload known only as ‘Zuma’, was conducted, and the results of the launch appeared to indicate a failure – or perhaps a camouflaged success.

BUT -- unexpectedly for SpaceX and its customer, some features of the second stage operation were serendipitously observed from the ground and from an airliner over Sudan in Africa. Those observations – and their potential implications – are discussed here:

Fortunately, a number of other second stage plume events had been noticed, before and after the Zuma event, for comparison:

Australia fuel vent spiral June 4, 2010

Indian Ocean fuel dump sphere Sep 29, 2013

Persian Gulf deorbit burn  Feb 19, 2017

South African sighting of circularization burn Dec 23, 2017
Norway deorbit burn  Feb 19, 2018  

Post-GTO insertion fuel dump from Australia  May 10, 2018 [WORKING DRAFT]
Now that the plume-generation procedures have been approximately displayed by such events, a more thorough search of all other SpaceX launches with determination of ground twilight zones that might have afforded visibility [weather permitting] ought to be made, followed by a search of both amateur astronomy websites and UFO blogs for potential reports.

On Feb 06, 2018, SpaceX launched its first Falcon-Heavy superbooster on a spectacularly successful debut. Due to a liftoff delay of several hours, the planned second firing of the upper stage for one minute to achieve a trans-Mars trajectory occurred south of California at local twilight. This created accidental viewing opportunities across California, Arizona, as far east as the Texas panhandle, and in northwestern Mexico. Those sightings, and on-board camera views of the second stage engine, provided enormously important new insights into the engine functions, as described here:  


Hit-or-miss  engenderment of UFO reports from missile/space activity continued around the world for decades but the advent of widespread personal video recorders and the inauguration of new types of missile/space activity together provided the fertile ground for a quantum leap in pseudo-UFO fever a decade ago, and even more precisely, on Dec 9 & 10, 2009.

The spectacular ‘Norway spiral’ on December 9, 2009, the day before President Barack Obama arrived in Oslo to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, was captured on a dozen videocameras [and soon immortalized in more CGI fake versions]. It remains the touchstone of ‘unexplainableness’ in pop culture to this day even though the hard evidence it was a Russian military missile test is incontrovertible – see

The very next day, another spectacular sky spiral – much briefer than the Norway event but just as widely publicized – startled ground witnesses in in southern Russia and adjacent Central Asian nations such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. It turned out to be the first of half a dozen evening-twilight test flights of a new defense-evading nuclear warhead, launched from Russia’s old test range of Kapustin Yar on the lower Volga into the Soviet-era anti-missile test range at Sary Shagan in Kazakhstan. The tests [which seem to have ended in 2017] were flown on decommissioned Topol missile flying a unique high-lobbed and then sharply-turned-down trajectory, creating unusual visual phenomena even for ‘space plumes’.

For reference purposes, I dubbed these special flights the  “KYSS-T” series [Kapustin Yar to Sary Shagan -- Topol]. They were tersely announced officially in Moscow but any connection to the UFO panics they later ignited was not discussed. See

While the internet was still ringing with wild speculations about the nature of these two events in late 2009, a third ‘sky spiral’ appeared over southeastern Australia before dawn on June 4, 2010. It turned out to be a post-launch surplus fuel dump from a slowly spinning upper stage of the very first orbital launch of the SpaceX ‘Falcon-9’ space booster. But once again, to the Internet audience of enthusiasts, it was absolutely inexplicable in prosaic terms.

Enthusiasts mobilized to discover more such ‘spiral UFOs’, and quickly found a then-recent case from 2006 over Tomsk, Siberia [a satellite launch]. See

… and soon were treated to a new one on Dec 23, 2011, when in a fairly unique spaceflight accident a satellite rocket’s upper stage exploded halfway into orbit. Its ascent  was observed from an airliner, and the explosion was spotted from the ground [including one dashcam view that caught the moment of the explosion from a street in Novosibirsk that was later found on Google streetview and the exact azimuth to the explosion measured]. Subsequent observers watched as its expanding fuel cloud descended into Earth’s shadow and then, moments later, as the rocket fragments entered the atmosphere and burned up as fireball meteors. One of the pieces hit a house on ‘Cosmonaut Street’ near Tyumen in Siberia. The correlation of the sightings [and the recovered debris] proved its earthborn nature, but on the internet it was still another UFO.  

By 2018 the Russian launches were finally generally recognized for what they were [including one spectacular launch during World Cup final games], although a tour of and still showed many sites promoting that object as an alien visitor to an eager audience. 


The same geographic and cultural features that had made the USSR a fertile breeding ground for rocket plume pseud-UFOs also applied to China.

2010 – Did missile test spark China UFO reports?

Sometimes Chinese observers were spooked by missile tests in neighboring Siberia:
Soviet ‘Space War Games’ Spark UFO panics across eastern Asia [June 18, 1982]

Sometimes Chinese launches spooked observers in other countries:
although the man who first recorded that rocket fuel dump still insists it was an alien craft:

In 2017-2018 a still puzzling series of missile launches were observed across northern China:

This was seen by a Dutch airliner crew over western China and also photographed by many Chinese observers also. July 23, 2017, 10:15 PM local time [14:15 GMT]. [translation help needed!]

Launch seen from Beijing April 27, 2018


Although spectacular videos have proliferated in recent years as personal pocketcams and automobile dashcams became more widely available, the basic rocket plume apparition has been reported since the dawn of the Space Age in 1957. Because of its novelty and rarity, each apparition  was generally mischaracterized as a UFO event and as such entered that literary genre.

This report presents two dozen examples from the 1960s to the present…

Such sightings have occurred all over the world, but they are not randomly distributed. Both specific launch site locations, and particular geographic features, have created regional ‘hot spots’.  Just as one example, it happens that most Japanese space probes launched from their rocket sites in practically any direction will tend to criss-cross a region east of northern Argentina.

But it’s Russia, the nation that opened the Space Age, that has harvested the most abundant crop of space activity sightings.  Because of purely geographic considerations, people in Russia saw their country’s missile/rocket activity more frequently than in other countries where rockets were usually fired out over open ocean [with few witnesses] for safety reasons.

In addition, Moscow developed and tested one particular kind of rocket that used its last stage to dive back into the atmosphere carrying a dummy nuclear weapon, and the rocket plumes from that extraordinary flight profile were widely observed – and misinterpreted – all across southern Russia in in 1967-8 and became one of the greatest classic ‘UFO flaps’ in world history.


By 1977, twenty years into the ‘Space Age’, rocket launchings from a secret base north of Moscow had become almost ‘standard’ as instigators of famous UFO events.

‘Petrozavodsk Jellyfish’ [Kosmos-955 satellite  from Plesetsk], Sep 1977

In 1984, a Soviet sub-launched missile [from the White Sea] was seen from civilian airliners and from Finland [Sep 7, 1984]

In the same period, another geographic coincidence placed Soviet satellite boosters performing an orbit-raising burn halfway around the world from their launch site, which happened to be west of the southern Andes Mountains of South America – and under particular solar illumination conditions, these sparked one of the biggest ‘UFO flaps’ in Latin American history.

Such routine Russian launches were often observed by airline pilots, who could interpreted the apparition as  incorrectly as anyone else [and sometimes more, as will be explained later]. On January 28, 1994, the Progress-TM21 supply drone launch to a Russian space station was seen over Kazakhstan and described by respected UFO researcher Richard Hall [in his book  ‘The UFO Evidence”] as a “luminous UFO maneuvered erratically near airliner” [ cited], when the object actually flew a straight course hundreds of kilometers away from the pilot. The actual rocket event is described here:

In those years, other space plume events were being observed and correctly interpreted by amateur astronomers, as described here: July 2002 [ASTRONOMY magazine] – ‘Close encounters’ with satellites

And here :  1988, ‘Sky & Telescope”