Anyone who lives in the eastern part of the
United States or Canada and gazing skyward on Tuesday evening
may have noticed something strange in their west-northwest sky.
At around 9 p.m. EDT, a small, bright, silvery circular cloud
of light suddenly appeared. Over the next 25 minutes, the cloud
appeared to gradually expand and fade, finally becoming invisible
to the unaided eye. Those who saw it, wondered exactly what it
might have been.
John Bortle, a well-known amateur astronomer with over four-decades
of experience of sky observing first caught sight of the cloud
at 9:03 p.m. EDT from his home in Stormville, New York. Initially,
he thought the cloud was as bright as zero or first magnitude
and upon examining it carefully with binoculars, thought that
it " ... resembled the petals of a day lily." By 9:30 p.m., he
reported that the cloud had faded completely from his view.
From the North Fork of Long Island, Bill Bogardus and his wife
were out observing when they took note of the cloud " ... about
the size of the moon" in the northwest sky. "It was a roundish,
yet not all that round, object drifting towards our location very
slowly, slower that most satellites because it took at least twenty
minutes to move from where we first saw it to pretty much our
After studying it for a while through an 8-inch telescope, Bogardus
noticed two points of light, " ... like a satellite would appear,
in line and above a jet of gas that seemed to come from them."
Observing from Ithaca, New York, Joseph Storch used 7x50 binoculars
on the cloud and reported a star-like point or nucleus and four
butterfly shaped petals radiating outward.
Other reports, received as far west as Toronto tell of people
who initially thought that what they were seeing was the moon
behind a cloud. Typical was the comment: "For a second I thought
it was the moon, then I realized the moon was in the east."
What was it?
Not a few people who saw this strange, expanding
cloud thought that it might have been an atmospheric experiment
sent aloft by a sounding rocket. Over the years, those living
along the US East Coast have been accustomed to occasionally seeing
unusual brightly colored clouds caused when exotic chemicals such
as barium and trimethylaluminum were released into the Earth's
ionosphere by rockets launched from NASA's Wallops Island, Virginia
However, in this case it was the U.S. National Reconnaissance
Office -- not NASA -- that was responsible for the unusual cloud
formation on Tuesday night.
It was a fuel dump of the Centaur stage involved in the NRO-1
satellite launch from Cape Canaveral late Tuesday afternoon. Dumping
excess fuel is the usual practice for all Centaur-booster assisted
launches. It happens after spacecraft separation; the fuel bleeding
off from a Centaur upper rocket stage on its second orbit after
launch. Being just after nightfall, the cloud of fuel was still
sunlit at that altitude.
And those who were fortuitously outside when the dump occurred,
were the ones who saw this very unusual sight!