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