June 8, 2012 at 12:29 AM ET
A swirling spiral of light seen in the skies over Israel, Syria and other Middle East countries on Thursday night has been linked to a Russian intercontinental ballistic missile test.
Hundreds of Israelis jammed police hotlines with reports of the unidentified flying object, according to Ynetnews. Sighting reports came from Lebanon and even Armenia and Turkey. Versions of the video, captioned in Arabic, began appearing on YouTube.
Some of the reports that popped up on Twitter suggested that the lights in the sky were seen as a good omen for Syria's revolution. Others worried that it was a bad omen for Syria, potentially signaling the use of chemical weapons.
The actual explanation is almost certainly more mundane: The Voice of Russia reported that the country's Strategic Missile Forces conducted a test of the Topol ICBM from the Kapustin Yar firing range near Astrakhan in southern Russia on Thursday. Such a launch could theoretically be seen from areas of the Middle East and the Caucasus.
Citing a report from RIA Novosti, the radio service said the missile "accurately hit its target" in a Kazakh firing range. However, Ynetnews quoted Yigal Pat-El, chairman of the Israel Astronomical Association, as saying the missile "most likely spun out of control, and its remnants and the fuel was what people saw."
The video was reminiscent of other "space spirals" that occur when rocket stages release burning fuel as they spin. One such spiral was sighted over Norway in 2009, and turned out to be caused by a failed ballistic missile test. In that case, the missile that went awry was a Bulava ICBM, launched from a submarine in the White Sea.
Another spiral was sighted in Russia the following night and captured on video. That one was caused by a Topol missile test, but the test was reported as a success. At the time, NBC News space analyst James Oberg said he had indications that the Topol's "third-stage spin is a 'feature,' not a malfunction, and may be associated with guidance, or decoy deploy, or enhancing hardness against U.S. boost-phase antimissile weapons."
Update for 3 p.m. ET June 8: In an email, Oberg says the video appears to show the normal ascent of a Russian ICBM. Here's his explanation:
"The 'spiral' does not look to me to be a sign of a 'failed missile test' — it has been a common visual feature of Russian missile launches for more than 30 years and seems associated with a roll maneuver to 'dump' unwanted surplus thrust for short-range test flights. Since you can't shut down a solid fuel rocket early, you need to find a way to dump thrust so you don't overshoot a target.
"One way is to open portals on the sides of the rocket as it burns — sending much of the thrust out to the sides. Two opposite facing portals are usually installed, to counterbalance the thrust and not knock it off course.
"A careful analysis of the infamous 'Norway spiral' several years ago shows twin plumes emerging from the central object, in opposite directions. An alternate method is just to pitch the rocket off 'straight ahead' and then corkscrew, so as to spray some of the thrust off to the sides and keep your speed down to what you really need. Otherwise you'll overshoot your intended target.
"This launch was from the Volga River Kapustin Yar test range, active since 1947, but ICBM tests are infrequent. Direction was east, headed for the Sary Shagan impact zone in Kazakhstan, normally used only for testing anti-missile radars and interceptor missiles. That's hardly more than 2,000 kilometers away, so the test clearly wasn't of the missile itself but of its warhead's 'penaids' — penetration aids to frustrate tracking and targeting by U.S. anti-missile systems. This would result in a very unusual trajectory to get up to full ICBM speed without overshooting the target zone — probably lofted a lot higher than normal and then headed back down towards the target zone while still thrusting.
"The range from Kazakhstan to Israel isn't that great — the missile got 'above the horizon' from Israel pretty quickly, even with Earth's curvature.
"Another contributing factor: It's June — near the time of the 'midnight sun' in northern latitudes. That means sunlight is streaming over the pole, throughout the night. Something in the northern sky above the atmosphere over Kazakhstan would be backlit by that sunlight.
"These 'accidental' factors combined to make this show possible. And the widespread availability of pocket camcorders made recording it much more common than in the past."
Other rocket-related UFO sightings:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.