by Morgan Davis
September 19, 2002 Did this sight over the San Diego skyline fuel
On the way to pick up our daughter from swim practice, my wife spotted
something strange and beautiful in the western sky. It was just after
sunset, about 7:40pm. She called and told me to immediately go
outside to look.
Just over the rooftop of our neighbor's home is what appeared to be a
spotlight of a slowly moving helicopter. Not an uncommon sight around
the hillsides of East County. Suddenly, the bright white light
bloomed into a dozen large, perfectly concentric "petals". As the
sky-flower rapidly faded, it left a misty aura high in the atmosphere.
This was no helicopter. It conjured thoughts of Grover's Mill and Orson
Steady now, boy
I dashed into the house to get my digital camera, then sprinted up our
driveway to get a better look. And there it was... the part I could
not see below the rooftops: a glowing, red-orange trail of light
blazing against the evening dusk. I knew instantly what it
A one-and-a-half second exposure was required to get my shot. But, I
had left the tripod in the house. Without it, the slightest movement
would blur the photo. I had to act fast, as the the fantastic
lightshow was quickly melting away over the Pacific. So I held my
breath, held perfectly still, snapped, and hoped a few shots would
So what was it?
The striking view was created by a Minuteman III missle launched from
Vandenberg Air Force Base. Two unarmed re-entry vehicles were to
travel 4,200 miles in 30 minutes to strike targets in the Marshall
Islands, according to the United States Air Force.
The "skyshow" was created when residual missile propellant and water
froze in the upper atmosphere. These frozen fragments reflect high
altitude sunlight, producing the multicolored luminescence. On this
evening, the conditions were just right, with clear skies and sun
below the horizon. As the missile rose out of the darkness into the
sunlight, the twilight phenomenon resulted.
Find out more about the September 19 missle test launch with these stunning
photos and interesting articles.
News photo and caption (Yahoo!)
Sept Launch Creates Spectacular Twilight Phenomenon
(Space & Missle Times)
Superb 9/19 launch photo
series (Tracy Justus)
launch images (30th Space Wing)
Search on Minuteman III
Map of Vandenberg
Launch Points & Timeline
does a rocket work? (ScienceNet)
in time for Halloween: War of the Worlds
PHOTO BY MORGAN DAVIS
LA MESA, CA The contrail from
an unarmed Minuteman III missle looms beyond Mt. Helix on September
19, 2002, at 7:44pm PDT.
PHOTO BY MORGAN DAVIS
More science in the San Diego sky. This eclipse photo was
taken in June using a digital camera and a special lens filter we
fashioned from solar viewing glasses.