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UFO? Astro ghost? Find out what that spooky space cloud really was 

Image: Space cloud
Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano captured this picture of a spooky space cloud on Thursday, and tweeted it out as http://pic.twitter.com/PshgE1W7CJ ... Parmitano knew right away what it was. "An immense cloud forms outside the atmosphere after the disintegration" of a missile stage, he wrote.

UFO reports from Russia and spooky pictures from the International Space Station have been traced to the same phenomenon: a Russian missile launch that took place last Thursday.

One of the spookiest things about the UFO sightings is that they were predicted in advance.

"Russia just test-fired a Topol ICBM from the Kapustin Yar range on the lower Volga, to the Shary Shagan impact zone in Kazakhstan," NBC News space analyst James Oberg reported Thursday on the Above Top Secret forum. "In the past, such launches have been seen over a wide area, as far away as Israel and Syria, and reported as UFOs. ... If the weather was clear, we might expect some spectacular videos to show up on YouTube and RUTube."

Sure enough, UFO sightings streamed in from Russia, accompanied by amazing videos of cometlike flare-ups.

But Oberg didn't predict that the blast would produce some eerie pictures from the space station as well: NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano both snapped pictures of a hazy space cloud with Earth's rim in the background. Parmitano even got a picture of the trail left behind by the Topol missile's ascent.

Image: Missile launch
Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano's picture from the International Space Station shows the trail left behind by a Russian missile launch. "A missile launch seen from space: an unexpected surprise!" Parmitano wrote. The picture was distributed via Twitter as http://pic.twitter.com/mbWI209ELv

Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait has a bit of fun with the sighting, imagining it as a deleted scene from "Gravity." And it does make you think: The spooky, jellyfish-shaped cloud of gas from the Topol missile looks mighty close.

"The missile plume is not symmetric or evenly distributed," Oberg acknowledged in an email. "It seems to have some shape, even though it is composed of gas particles moving at perhaps 10,000 feet per second. They are visible because they are glowing hot, but also because they are in sunlight."

The shape reflects how the hot exhaust expanded as it left the rocket, with "four circumferential notches that must be a consequence of plume expansion from four nozzles, or of four steering vanes," Oberg said.

The rocket blast put on a good show for the shooters on the space station, but Oberg said the launch posed no hazard to the astronauts. "This wasn't anywhere near a 'Gravity' Hollywood space debris cascade-triggering possibility," he said. "Topol's altitude, even while thrusting, was far higher than the ISS's, but in terms of accidental collision, [the phrase] 'you can't get there from here' applies. It never went fast enough to catch up."

Some questions remain, however: What were the space station's three Russian cosmonauts doing while the Topol was being launched? Was the launch deliberately timed so they could observe the performance of the missile and its test warhead? Let the conspiracy theories begin ...

More UFO sightings caused by rockets:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.