March 25, 2021

Secret Rocket Launch. Alien Visitation, or Meteorology?

Important Message: The strange lights Thursday night were the debris from a Falcon-9 launch vehicle that were re-entering the atmosphere.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this blog is that readers send me cloud pictures for identification or discussion.

Most can be readily explained and others require some detective work.

But every once in a while I get a picture that stumps me, and today I will show you such an image.

I received this photo from a well-known photographer, Steve Mullensky of Port Townsend (his Facebook page is here and a story about him here.)   

So this image is from a reputable individual and is not some photoshopped wonder.

You got to admit this object looks like a missile with a trailing smoke plume.

But you need more information.  The image was taken at 7:11 AM on Tuesday, March 16th using a telephoto lens (2000 mm).  The picture was taken from Port Townsend looking east (he estimated 98 degrees from north, somewhere between Glacier and Del Campo peaks in the image below.

And he subjectively estimated that the image was roughly 100 miles away, but that could not be precise.

Thus, on a map the "object" would be roughly in the direction indicated (and I note 100 miles).  This direction does not pass over Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and runs north of the Everett Homeport.

Mr. Mullensky provided some additional photos that seem to suggest that the object appeared to curve into more level flight (but one has to be careful with perspective here). 

The "cloud" does appear to be below the level of some cirrostratus clouds above.

He also digitally enhanced an image that appears to show some solid object leading the strange cloud.  Does look like some kind of alien craft.

Trying to get some more information, I took a look at the first visible satellite available after the (7:36 AM) sighting (see below).  Some low clouds banked against the western side of the Cascades and lots of cirrostratus ice clouds aloft (the thin veil), with obvious aircraft contrails.

The image looking north from the Kitsap Peninsula supplied by Greg Johnson of Skunk Bay Weather shows the high clouds.  But no sign of the rocket cloud in any of his images.

An important issue for producing clouds is the degree of air saturation, something that can be estimated by the vertical sounding of a balloon-lofted radiosonde at Forks, on the Washington Coast (see below).   The nominal time is 5 AM March 16.

Temperature is in red, dew point is the blue dashed line.   When the two are close together, there is saturation--which means clouds.   You can see a layer in which they nearly touch, around 30,000 to 35,000 ft.  That is probably associated with the high ice clouds I mentioned.  But the air is reasonably close to saturation below, down to around 18,000 ft.

OK, so what could be the explanation of all this?

1.   There was a secret rocket launch.   Not my favorite.
2.  Some kind of alien craft.  Even less of a favorite
3.   A high-performance military aircraft from Whidbey accelerated vertically and caused the air to become saturated, producing a contrail.   My top choice at this point.
4.  A commercial aircraft rising to cruise altitude....but from where?  Paine Field?

One thing in support of (3, 4) is the suggestion of two smoke/contrail plumes coming off the object (see below).

Anyway, this one is a mystery and if anyone has some ideas or information, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Courtesy of Joe Wos


  1. It's an overseas flight coming from Asia at altitude. Probably headed to Chicago.
    Perspective makes it look like it's climbing. Watch contrails as they come toward or away from you.

  2. If you go farther out -- 258 miles -- at a heading of 100˚, you hit Fairchild AFB near Spokane.

  3. I don't have a payed flightradar24 account but perhaps someone who does could go back and check that time.

    1. UPS2991 was on a 95˚ heading at 37,000 out of SeaTac. But it was already to the Columbia River just north of Wanatchee. That's about it...

    2. To the best of my knowledge, military flights are suppressed on FlightRadar24. We've had some flights over Kirkland (like, a flyover in recognition of Covid first responders a few months ago) and they didn't show up even though we could hear the planes overhead.

  4. There are possibilities..... Carrier landing practice schedule might include some naval operations with drones... or with the f-35... which earlier had big troubles if accelerating at greater than a 20 degree angle of attack, maybe they are working on that. Or it could be their drone that helps naval pilots detect and intercept hypersonic weapons (the second link below).

  5. Speaking strange phenomena tonight I observed what appeared to be the re-entry and breakup of a satellite around 9pm. Did anyone else see this? I saw this looking southeast from the west side of san juan island. At first I thought it was a bright plane at, but as I watched it the tail elongated and brightened. Then it broke into many glowing pieces that continued to fly through the sky. It was much slower than a meteor. The show lasted a good 30 seconds.

  6. debris from Space X rocket

  7. The area around Glacier Peak appears to be a favorite for Navy jets, so it wouldn't surprise me if that's what created the contrail. I've been camping on the Chiwawa River and had F-18s scream down the valley at low altitude, and I also climbed Glacier Peak a few years ago and two of them buzzed the top of the mountain - inverted! It was a gorgeous sunny day so I couldn't blame them for taking a joyride.

    1. They have no business screwing up our wilderness experience. They are supposed to stay 500 ft. off the round in a wilderness, but for those noisy jets, that isn't far enough. Definitely complain to your congress person.

    2. I think my first draft got lost... I'm not talking about someone flying around in a private Cessna. I'm talking about military jets. When I go out in the woods, I don't disturb everyone (not to mention the wildlife) for several miles in all directions. The point is, they have way more impact. How would you like someone driving around your neighborhood at 3 AM blasting the horn? You would be justified in calling the cops.

      Let the "top gun" types practice over their military reservations. They have several large reservations in the Southwest, about 50 miles square.

  8. "The Falcon 9 second stage from the Mar 4 Starlink launch failed to make a deorbit burn and is now reentering after 22 days in orbit. Its reentry was observed from the Seattle area at about 0400 UTC Mar 26."
    From the Portland NWS Twitter page.
    Is this the same thing?

    1. Of course! Space-X! We don't need any more space junk, or their enhanced internet. I am all for Elon Musk's electric cars, but I'd like to the feds to really restrict his satellite launches.

  9. Well, at least it wasn't the Tesla Roadster.

  10. One of the confusing elements here is the narrow field of view. With a reasonable guess at the focal plane size (60 mm), the field of view is less than 2 degrees. Guessing that the camera is aimed about 5 degrees above the horizon, I can calculate a straight trajectory at cruise altitude going roughly west with the end points ~160km and ~130km away. I'd say it's a commercial contrail. I do admit there's a lot of guessing here, but it's self consistent.

  11. It's definitely a twin engine commercial aircraft leaving a heavy contrail. The merging pair of vapor trails is definitely familiar. It looks like it is ascending because of the foreshortened perspective of the long focal length, but in reality it is in level flight.

    I've seen similar photos from less distances where the aircraft can more easily be discerned, and initially experienced the same mistaken perception that the angle indicated it was ascending. The contrail forming some distance behind the aircraft due to a delay in the exhaust condensing is also not unusual.

    I doubt it is going to Paine Field or anywhere in Washington, but there's plenty of other candidates. For example, Dallas-Tokyo:

  12. Our view from Kingston is pretty much the same and almost every morning at certain times of the year (now is one) I see a contrail in the sunrise and find it rather irritating but I've always been curious what flight path it's on and assume it is so because of the regularity......

  13. The proliferation of quality cell phones has meant that many ufo situations are being captured on video...and the other nice thing is, these odd sightings can be explained away with modern technology.

  14. I read that a Falcon 9 rocket from starlink failed messed up its de-orbital burn and re-entered sooner than expected in not the right location. It was built to burn up on re-entry but still made for a good show.


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