Mysterious Cloud From Russian Missile Test Surprises Astronauts

The now not-so-mysterious cloud seen by space station astronauts over the weekend. Credit: Luca Parmitano / NASA

Friday night, Luca Parmitano looked out the window of the International Space Station and saw a very peculiar cloud hovering above the limb of the Earth. He thought it might be a rocket contrail, but with most NASA employees furloughed due to the government shutdown, no launches were scheduled. Nor were any U.S. commercial rocket launches set to go.

Luca’s photo of the wiggly contrail created by exhaust and water vapor from rocket launch. Click to enlarge. Credit: Luca Parmitano / NASA

Turns out Russia was testing its new Topol/SS-25 missile which launched on Oct. 10 from the Sary Shagan test site in Kazakhstan. According to a representative of the Strategic Rocket Forces, the test was used to confirm characteristics of the Topol missile, to test the systems of the Sary Shagan test site, and “to test new combat payload for intercontinental ballistic missiles.” The rocket has a range of 6,800 miles (11,000 km). The test was successful.

What Parmitano and the other astronauts saw was a huge cloud-like contrail left by the rocket above the atmosphere. Wish I could see stuff like that out my window.

The photo may remind you of another weird cloud connected with a failed rocket test from a Russian submarine in December 2009.

The spiral cloud above Skjervoy in northern Norway early Wednesday Dec. 9, 2009 caused by the the failure of a new Russian anti-submarine-based intercontinental missile. Fuel spewing from the spinning rocket made a dazzling spiral. Credit: AP Photo/Anita Olsen, Scanpix, Norway

After launch, the rocket developed problems and spun out of control while venting fuel in the stratosphere. Lit by the sun at dawn, Norwegians savvy enough to look skyward that morning saw a spectacular, otherwordly spiral. Click HERE to read how it all came down.

14 Responses

        1. astrobob

          I think Encke will be the easier of the two unless Lovejoy surprises. When I compared them a week ago, Encke was larger and a tad brighter.

  1. Nick

    There’s a lot more going on.

    This is coming from within the US gov.

    That spiral cloud is some type of electromagnetic implosion weapon.

      1. Bob Crozier

        Hi Bob,

        Forgive my skepticism (again), but how does a rocket moving at who-knows-how-fast (mach 3, 4, 5 or more?) create a nearly perfect spiral pattern with each band (except the very outer one) seemingly the same width and distance apart… unless it is moving almost exactly in a straight line towards the person taking the picture (pretty unlikely especially given the direction of the contrail leading up to the pattern)? Please understand, I do not pretend to know much of anything about these things. Nor do I have any alternate ideas or speculations. But to my very uneducated mind at least, an *out* of control rocket does not appear to be a very good explanation for this pattern. It looks to me like it is very precisely controlled.

        As always, I really enjoy reading your blog. Please keep up the excellent work. It is so much appreciated!


        1. astrobob

          Hi Bob,
          I’m no rocket expert but I know that the rocket was spiraling out of control which fits the venting pattern very well. It was also well-documented at the time that the Russian missile test would have been visible over Norway and that it failed. It’s amazing symmetry naturally got the end-of-world crowd breathless with talk of aliens, etc. Thanks for your comments about the blog – I appreciate that.

          1. Bob Crozier

            If that rocket was traveling along a trajectory at a rapid rate of speed (which, as I understand it, *any* rocket would be doing at that elevation [stratosphere] except for one launched completely straight up [or very nearly so] that was ‘topped out’ and would soon be falling back toward Earth), wouldn’t the spiral pattern be significantly stretched behind the rocket and significantly compressed in front of it? (I seem to recall you had a graphic recently showing this same effect for sound [a siren] coming from a moving object [an ambulance?], but I couldn’t find quickly.) But that is definitely not what we see here in this photo.

          2. astrobob

            That sounds logical but at least for a time the thrust from venting must have strong enough to keep it from falling. I’m guessing that the spirals were created very quickly and then expanded outward and became visible after the rocket stage had fallen to the ground. Here’s a great story with much more information:

          3. Bob Crozier

            in reply to your 5:52pm post: thanks for that link! That provided some helpful information and interesting actual video. It also lead to more links. It is interesting that this whole thing seems to have been, in large part at least, illuminated by the rocket itself as it all disappears in an instant, at least in a couple of videos. So it would seem it was still an ignited rocket. Yes, you are right: the spirals were created very quickly. But even in the stratosphere, there should be plenty enough air (resistance) to create a compression and stretching effect on vented material, shouldn’t there? Finally, the AP photo that you included seems to me like it may have been significantly ‘enhanced.’ None of the other pictures or videos that I have seen (which, admittedly, are not many) show this nearly as clearly, particularly on the leading (left) side of the spiral.

            Thanks again!

          4. astrobob

            You’re welcome Bob. I’ve seen at least one other photo taken from a different location that identical to the AP image. Timing – and possibly perspective – had much to do with the view.

  2. Bob Crozier

    Hey Bob,

    Re. Luca’s photo of the cloud from the ISS, the webpage that your “Strategic Rocket Forces” link pointed to says that the SS-25 is not new but rather at the end of its service life. Also, does this kind of cloud look like the kind of cloud that would be generated by the detonation of an ICBM “combat payload” in space? And how far away from the ISS would this detonation have been? I would think that it would be seriously foolish to be deliberately detonating a missile any where near the altitude of low-earth orbit, even if it was north or south of where the ISS orbits! And finally, aren’t there treaties about such things? How could they do that without there being huge outcry from other nations and NGO’s?

    Have a great day!

    1. astrobob

      All good points. And hey, doesn’t Russian have astronauts up there? I doubt they’d want to put their own people in harm’s way.

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