New Scientist is reporting that the strange spiral of light that Norwegians saw in the sky two nights ago was in fact a failed Russian missile launch.
The magazine quotes Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who identifies it as the failure-prone Bulava ballistic missile, launched from a submarine. McDowell said the Russian Navy is in the right geographical position to launch it. He added that Russia has denied that it was their missile, but "this could be because another Bulava failure is a huge and embarrassing setback for their programme."
As for why the perfect spiral shape was created:
McDowell says the shape suggests the failure occurred well above the atmosphere. If it had occurred at lower altitudes, atmospheric drag would have caused the missile to fall quickly to Earth, creating a downward-pointing corkscrew pattern whose contrails would have been blown "this way and that" by wind, he told New Scientist.
The Bulava missile has three stages that fire in succession as it climbs up in altitude. "Probably what happened is that stages 1 and 2 did just fine and were discarded in turn, and then stage 3 started burning and almost immediately went wrong," McDowell says.
He says the third stage's nozzle, which directs the rocket's exhaust plume, may have fallen off or been punctured, causing the exhaust to come out sideways instead of out the back. "The sideways thrust sends the rocket into a spin, spewing flame as it goes," he says.
"If thrust was terminated right away, then you wouldn't see the spiral," he continues. "The unusual thing this time is that the missile was allowed to carry on firing for a bit after it went wrong."
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