♪ Rocccckkeettmaaaannn... ♬
March 21, 2009 12:49 AM   Subscribe

A rocket launch? Near San Francisco? What the hell did I see tonight?

Okay, honestly, I try to avoid UFOFilter questions, but I saw something wacky tonight. My fiancée and I were walking east on 16th, about to cross Dolores. In the southeast sky we saw an orange flame which flickered and puffed like looking up the tail of a rocket. It continued to get smaller and smaller (though it continued to flicker) until finally it got too small to keep a steady eye on and we lost it.

I'm pretty sure it wasn't a plane or helicopter. The color of the light emanating from it was a really deep orange, and there were a couple of other aircraft in the sky at about the same distance to provide comparison. The way the light was fluctuating too was particularly unique, even in tonight's windy and turbulent atmosphere.

Anything go up today that I might have seen? I realize there's probably not many rocket launch sites remotely close to here. Or just chalk this one up to mysteries of the unexplained?
posted by symphonik to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's foggy there tonight, right? My guess is that it was the cone of light from an aircraft made more solid and flame-like in appearance by the presence and movement of the fog. I've noticed huge cones of light emanating from commercial planes before, they look really massive.
posted by contraption at 1:52 AM on March 21, 2009

Floating Thai lanterns
posted by jcruelty at 2:15 AM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hmm, that's a good thought too. The Vernal Equinox happened yesterday (Friday the 19th) and it's possible someone released a floating flaming something as part of a celbration.

Here's a video of a lantern release
posted by contraption at 2:38 AM on March 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

Another (albeit remote) possibility, a fighter jet with an afterburner doing a vertical climb.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 3:18 AM on March 21, 2009

Jets on afterburner are loud. I think symphonik would have heard that.

I like the airplane-lights-through-fog suggestion; I've seen interesting flame-cone like effects from those in the past.
posted by hattifattener at 4:01 AM on March 21, 2009

I'm also guessing fire lanterns based on your description. A bunch were launched near my apartment a few months ago, and it took a really long time (like, 10-15 of them passing) before I was able to make the connection and see them in perspective for what they really were. I thought rockets, UFOs, etc, until I realized they were only maybe 50 or 100m above me.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:23 AM on March 21, 2009

The western launch complex for the US, Vandenberg Air Force Base, is located just down the coast from you near Lompoc, which is south-southeast from SF. Launches from there are often classified, and thus not publicized in advance. Trajectories from Vandenberg are frequently to the south for payloads going into polar orbits or for ballistic missile tests impacting in the pacific. Viewing a southbound launch from SF you would be looking right up the tail at the rocket motors. It is entirely possible you saw a Vandenberg launch. Here is a link to a website describing the areas where Vandenberg launches may be visible.

I have seen a few launches from Cape Canaveral, and what you describe is exactly what a launch looks like from a great distance.
posted by dinger at 5:27 AM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

It was the flair we sent up to announce the meetup's afterparty - you didn't get the memo?

It was likely launch from Vandenberg, yeah. I saw something similar a few years ago, although it was still daylight out, so the most noticeable thing was the contrail.
posted by rtha at 6:25 AM on March 21, 2009

I asked a similar question a while back, and finally I found a YouTube video of the UFO.

Turns out it was a fireball meteor.
posted by dydecker at 6:50 AM on March 21, 2009

I saw a launch from Vandenberg some years ago from Point Reyes. It was what you described, and was seen by many people. It was corroborated the next day in the Chron.
posted by davoid at 8:45 AM on March 21, 2009

Possibly a meteorite (or meteor, i always get the two terms confused) burning up? What we see as shooting stars are usually rocks and dust burning up in the very high atmosphere, but sometimes they make it down pretty low. On two occasions, I myself have seen a flair of something I assumed to be a low meteorite burn. Once was in San Francisco actually, at night, walking along market street. I happened to glance up and see what looked like a very small roman candle spark shooting across the sky, but BELOW the tops of the buildings. It few for only a second then exploded in a little shower of three or four sparks. No sound. It was probably little more than a couple flecks of dust burning up. It was mostly blue, though, not orange, but the color probably depends on the chemical composition of the meteorite.
posted by CTORourke at 11:03 AM on March 21, 2009

I was going to say a Vandenberg launch as well. We can see them from San Diego, which is about as far away from Vandenberg as SF is, just on the other side. One of the nicer side effects for us on evening launches is that the vapor trail from the rocket stays illuminated by the setting sun for quite a while after sunset and takes on a rainbow-like, irridescent sheen that's incredibly beautiful.
posted by LionIndex at 12:19 PM on March 21, 2009

jcruelty nailed it: http://twitter.com/dav/status/1364293430
posted by dav at 12:32 PM on March 21, 2009

I had my doubts about the rocket theory because orange light means relatively low temp. compared to white or blue, and therefore lower reaction velocity; because rocket exhaust emerges under tremendous pressure and with great velocity, which makes low frequency variation like 'flickering' problematic; and because the lantern theory, which is compatible with flicker, also explains the fact this was observed on the equinox.

However, bright orange flames are a feature of some solid rocket exhaust:

The color of the Shuttle's trail is initially yellow due to the heavy orange flame from the solid rocket boosters.

The rocket motor used for demonstration tests was the MK 66, which burns for approximately one second. It contains a double-base, non-aluminized propellant. The visible signature is primarily smokeless, consisting mainly of a bright orange flame resulting from afterburning of the fuel-rich exhaust

The fact that the orange color derives from "afterburning" in the atmosphere would make flicker almost inevitable.

And finally, for some kinds of missions, launch dates near the equinoxes are desirable for fuel savings.

So I think it was a rocket.
posted by jamjam at 12:50 PM on March 21, 2009

There have been launches from Vandenberg that you can see from the city, and they looked a lot like what you describe.

But I can't seem to find a single news article about a launch yesterday mentioned in any California newspaper (uh, newspaper's web site) or Google News.

Not sure the wind was good for lantern launches yesterday, but why not?
posted by Ookseer at 3:32 PM on March 21, 2009

« Older A cheap replacement for Seroquel?   |   Help me track down the name of a disturbing film! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.