Dec. 9, 2009 at 9:56 PM ET
Click for video: A spiral seen in Norwegian skies has sparked speculation
worldwide. Click on the image for Brian Williams' report on "NBC Nightly News."
A spectacular light show visible from northern Norway has energized the UFO crowd. Was that blazing pinwheel in the sky a signal from the aliens? Was it a practice run for an elaborate worldwide messianic hoax?
You'd expect the experts to come out with a less sensational explanation, and they have: They suggest that the display was caused by a Russian submarine-launched missile that went into a midair spin, causing a spiral-shaped rocket plume.
The glowing spiral, with a bluish column of smoke trailing down toward the horizon, was seen in eastern skies early this morning from a wide area of northern Norway. Photos and video clips of the display quickly proliferated - first in Norwegian news media, then around the world via the Internet. For a sampling, check out NRK, The Daily Mail and SpaceWeather.com.
The effect looks almost too good to be real, and tabloids floated some out-of-this-world suggestions for its cause - such as a previously unknown manifestation of the Northern Lights, a black hole or a "Stargate" to another dimension.
A former UFO analyst for the British Ministry of Defense, Nick Pope, was mystified by the flare-up. "It's ironic that something like this should happen the very week after the [Ministry of Defense] terminated its UFO project," he told The Sun. "It just goes to show how wrong that decision was."
One Internet forum debated whether the fireworks were a test run for "Project Bluebeam," which supposedly involves creating huge projections in the sky that show scenes of the Second Coming or an alien invasion. The hoax would clear the way for a one-world government to take over - well, at least that's what the conspiracy theorists think.
Russian and Norwegian news reports gave strong support to the missile hypothesis. The Infox.ru news site and Norway's Barents Observer referred to Russian advisories about missile test launches that were to take place around the time of the sighting.
"The missile was most likely yet another failed test launch of a Bulava missile from the Typhoon submarine Dmitry Donskoy in the White Sea area," the Barents Observer said. A similar phenomenon was spotted a month ago, but without the spectacular spiral.
NBC News space analyst James Oberg, an expert on UFO sightings as well as the Russian space program, says the missile spin is a plausible explanation.
"But it is still not clear that the missile actually failed. ... Spiral rocket plumes are also created by rocket stages spinning to create gyroscopic stability," Oberg said in an e-mail. "Also, Norwegian observers were looking 'up the tailpipe' of the rocket as it sped eastward, away from them - so even a slight thrusting wobble might manifest itself as an expanding spiral, exactly what was seen."
Oberg noted that the Bulava missile has been at the center of a Russian military scandal. "The continuing failures of its test program in the past two years is putting the Russian nuclear weapons retaliatory capability in doubt as older missiles degrade in their silos and the replacement missile is still years from deployment," he said.
So what does the Russian military have to say? Not much. "On this matter we do not confirm, we do not deny, we do not comment," a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told Infox.ru.
If the spiral in the sky really was a missile failure, Moscow's higher-ups just might prefer to have the world think it was a UFO.
For more case studies from the ex-Soviet X-files, check out Oberg's reports on Tunguska's 'alien' artifacts, the 1984 Minsk UFO sighting and Russia's space dumping ground in the Pacific. Search for UFOs on msnbc.com - and to hear more from Oberg about the case of the Norwegian pinwheel, watch this video clip from "The Rachel Maddow Show."
Update for 10:55 a.m. ET Dec. 10: The Russian Defense Ministry has admitted that a failed missile caused the light show. Oberg said he was initially cautious about assuming that the missile failed because similar exhaust spirals had been seen in the past, but he accepted the official story.
"The impressive translucent moving spiral was the tumbling rocket moving eastward, almost a thousand miles away from Norway and moving almost directly away from the area," Oberg explained in an e-mail. "Observers were seeing - and photographing - it from behind, even as the images gave the impression of something moving toward them. The illusion was the result of the transparency of the exhaust clouds."
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