If there’s one thing I’m a sucker for it’s a good light show. When I used to live out in the country I had an absolutely fantastic view of the night sky and I can remember spending many nights laying on top of our concrete water tank staring up at the sky. I even remember waking up at 2am one morning to spend a chilly couple hours watching an extremely active meteor shower (I can’t remember exactly which one it was, but it most likely the Leonids). You can then imagine my excitement when I heard of this spectacular light show that dazzled Norway:
Apparently, this is not a Photoshopped image, as there are several more just like it, taken from various locations. This morning in northern Norway, people saw a strange light in the sky which shocked residents and so far, the phenomenon has yet to be explained. This picture was taken from a pier, looking to the east, approximately at 07.50 am local time. “I can imagine that it went on for two, three minutes,” said the photographer Jan Petter Jørgensen. “It was unbelievable. I was quite shaken when I saw it.”
“It consisted initially of a green beam of light similar in colour to the aurora with a mysterious rotating spiral at one end,” said another eyewitness, Nick Banbury of Harstad, quoted on Spaceweather.com. “This spiral then got bigger and bigger until it turned into a huge halo in the sky with the green beam extending down to the earth. According to the press, this could be seen all over northern norway and must therefore have been very high up in the atmosphere to be seen hundreds of km apart.”
It didn’t take long for people to speculate that this was probably due to some kind of rocket launch. As it turns out (as shown in the article) it was in fact a Russian Bulava missile which has had quite a checkered past. It’s designed to penetrate missile defense systems by being able to withstand a nuclear blast from 500m away as well as launching up to 6 warheads plus countermeasures all from the one launch vehicle. It’s an impressively scary beast to behold, except for the fact that 7 out of its 13 launches have ended in failure. Still this missile is interesting for other reasons as well, namely because of the way it failed.
When you’re designing a new launch system you’re pretty guaranteed to have a fair few failures in the initial design and testing stages. NASA was known for putting on quite a show back in their hay days, launching every other week which usually ended up with the payload exploding mid flight. Whilst it would appear from the ground that this was because of some failure on the rocket’s part in general when a launch system explodes during testing its usually the ground crew telling the rocket to explode. They do this in order to protect us civilians since a rocket capable of orbital (or even sub-orbital) speeds could very easily make its way into populated territory. If the rocket is misbehaving the last thing you want it doing is flying until its out of fuel, so the next best thing is to make it self destruct before it can do any damage.
Looking at this picture it would appear that whoever was testing this rocket either didn’t have the capability to initiate a self destruct or simply choose not to. The reports I’ve been reading regarding the incident have Russia admitting to it being a failure of the third stage which caused the rocket to tumble out of control. Since it had completed its first two stages it was probably several hundred kilometers above the Earth (its highest point is 1000km according to Astronautix) so letting it spiral out of control was probably the best option for it. Detonating at that height would give rise to quite a bit of debris, some of which would gain the required momentum to achieve orbit (albeit unstable).
You might then be thinking: why didn’t they just shut the damn thing off? Well therein lies the problem. Much like the two boosters that are strapped to the side of the rust coloured fuel tank of the shuttle the Bulava missile is what we call a solid rocket booster. The entire propulsion system is basically a giant firework and once its lit it can’t really be put out except when it explodes. So once the Bulava was in the air it was either keep flying until it was out of fuel or blow up spectacularly, either way we were in for a bit of a light show. Russia’s choice of failure mode was probably the safest, and no one will deny it was the coolest.
Even though Russia was testing something designed specifically for war, something I’m usually against, I still can’t help but marvel at it. It’s a decidedly Russian design and despite its failures Bulava is still quite an awesome piece of tech to behold. Even more so when it puts on a show like this for us