Rocket Launch Seen Over the NE US

A few reports have been received of a mysterious “comet”-like cloud visible over the Middle Atlantic and New England states during the evening of Sept 19. Steve from Martha’s Vineyard sent in the following sighting:

Unusual sighting at 19:22 on 9/19/09 from Matrha’s Vineyard (off Cape Cod, MA). Bright light (3-4x brighter than Jupiter) that seemed to be moving directly towards us (not across the sky). It grew brighter for 3-5 seconds and two eruption of glowing gases/debris were emitted from it. The first eruption fell out of the object, forming at triangle, while the second eruption formed a round cloud around the object. Both clouds remained visible for 2-3 minutes and drifted eastward into similar bands within the milky way.

It turns out that NASA had launched a small sounding rocket from their launch facilities on Wallops Island in Virginia. Sounding rockets don’t travel fast enough to orbit the Earth but are still fast enough to reach extremely high altitudes (as high as 1400+ km) before falling back to Earth.

The launch of the Black Brant XII rocket was part of the Charged Aerosol Release Experiment (CARE) conducted by the Naval Research Laboratory and the Department of Defense Space Test Program. It’s purpose was to release particles into the upper atmosphere in order to create an artificial cloud. The STPSat-1 satellite will monitor this cloud which will help shed light on what causes noctilucent clouds.

Info on the launch as well as some pictures can be found at NASA and Spaceweather.

Below is a cool YouTube video of the launch and cloud release by an observer in Maryland.


  1. I saw what appeared to be a comet tail going across the sky from east to west. I live in North River, NY (240 miles up the Hudson River from NYC) The time was 11:25 PM EDT. Could this have been the same? The timing doesn’t appear to be the same.

  2. I witnessed the same thing but the time and date do not match as it was Sunday morning at 12:45AM that I saw this huge ball of light fall to the earth and that would be the 22nd of September.
    Either way it was neat to see. I did not see any tail on it though as others have said. It just looked like a massive white ball of light and off into the tree line it went. I was wondering if anyone else would post anything about it.

    Shelton, CT.

    1. I meant the 20th. I was putting yesterdays date when I posted last night. Still find it odd after reading everyones post about this launch. It’s hard to believe when the times don’t match and it looks different than the video to me.

    2. Hi Dawn,

      You are correct about what you saw. It was not the same thing as the rocket launch from earlier that evening. There have been many reports of a large bright fireball (just a big bright meteor) happening at the time you reported from NJ to Maine.

      I have added a new post with a map of the sighting to the Transient Sky blog.

      Thanks for writing,
      – Carl

    1. Hi Musawir,

      One more question about your object, can you remember what part of the sky it was in? which direction (N,S,E,W)?

      Thanks for the kind words about the blog!

      To answer your question, I am an professional astronomer at the University of Arizona who studies comets and asteroids. I am also an avid amateur astronomer and have been for 25 years. My meteor work is for fun.

      – Carl

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