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Bubbling Spacecraft UFO in the South African skies

The strange craft which fleeted across South Africa’s night skies on Sunday the 18th of October 2009 causing UFO reports to flood observatories and Radio 702. Most people in South Africa thought they had seen a UFO but this object turned out to be a Centaur rocket carrying out tests when they passed over South Africa. From Mitchell Krog’s Astrophotography Portfolio. (Copyright Mitchell Krog – All Rights Reserved)

Information from thanks to Claire from the Planetarium for doing so much research into this event.

Hundreds of South Africans saw a star-like point moving across the sky while emitting “haloes” or “bubbles” of light just before 9pm on Sunday evening October 18th. This strange sight turns out to have been a Centaur rocket carrying out tests as it passed over South Africa nearly three hours after launch. The mission (AV-017) is a project of United Launch Alliance – see for a nice video of the launch and a 23-page “mission overview”. The purpose was to launch a US Defence Force weather satellite (DMSP F18) into orbit.

Ground Track

Event timeline (all times are South African time)Atlas Centaur

6:12pm – Atlas V rocket launches from Vandenberg Airforce Base

6:16pm – booster rocket shuts down and is jettisoned over the Pacific

– Centaur main engine starts

– payload fairing jettisoned

6:27pm – Centaur main engine shuts down

6:30pm – satellite released

– Collision and Contamination Avoidance Maneuver

6:46pm – testing begins

8:57pm – testing ends

9:10pm – Centaur main engine fires for 4min to send the rocket away from Earth (into an Earth-escape trajectory)

9:17pm – “blowdown” of the fuel tanks

9:56pm – burn off of residual hydrazine

What caused the bubbles?

Possibly venting of fuel during the tests, or firing of “reaction control” motors used to change the orientation or spin of the vehicle.

Tests carried out on the Centaur

Since the DMSP satellite was relatively light, the Centaur rocket had fuel left over after completing its mission of putting the satellite into orbit.  The collision and contamination avoidance manoeuvre gets the rocket a safe distance from the satellite.

After this, the Centaur is in free-fall – a (almost) zero-gravity state that can be created on Earth for a short time by dropping something from e.g. a tall tower, or in a plane for a few minutes (e.g. NASA’s “Vomit Comet“).  The test phase of the Centaur lasted about two hours.

The tests carried out during this time were described by ULA as:

“zero-g, long-coast propellant management . . . we do zero-g settling by the very reduced motion of the settling thrusters . . . [and then] settle the propellants against the wall of the tank by spinning the stage with no settling thrusters . . . [and] some venting during zero-g.”

Before re-starting the engine, the engineers also planned “a pulsed chill down demo . . . then some experiments related to the depletion of [the engine]“

One interesting use for these tests is to see how feasible orbiting “filling stations” are.  These would be useful for future manned spacecraft missions to the Moon or Mars, that would have to carry large (heavy) amounts of equipment into space.  Some of the experiments that would be useful for the design of these orbiting “propellant depots” include spinning the spacecraft to settle the fuel against the sides of the container, and firing small rockets or venting small amounts of fuel to push the fuel against one end of the container.  A large fuel tanker in zero-gravity has problems that include leakage of the hydrogen fuel (hydrogen molecules are very small and eventually leak through the walls of containers), and keeping the fuel cool.

United Launch Alliance has a great collection of (fairly technical) publications related to the future development of space exploration – see their publications page, especially this one which mentions using the DMSP-18 mission for zero-g propellant tests.

“The mothership is watching us”. What many would love to believe was a UFO turns out to be something actually from this world. A centaur rocket is captured dumping excess propellant into the atmosphere as part of a testing phase of this rocket launch. From Mitchell Krog’s Astrophotography Portfolio.