Those of you living in southern California might have seen the impressive spectacle that was the six-foot Minotaur rocket blasting off a half an hour after sunset last night. Residents as far away as Utah, Nevada, and Arizona reported seeing the impressive corkscrew-like contrail caused by winds in the upper atmosphere, and authorities were inundated with calls wondering what had just happened.
The Minotaur lifted off at 7:24 PDT, carrying an experimental military spacecraft, but clearly the most impressive thing about the launch were the accompanying photos. You can check out the Flickr photostream for more photos. I haven’t found any particularly good high-resolution photos, but I did come across an old NASA Photo of the Day, showing a similar missile launch of a Minuteman II rocket — which is, incidentally, my new desktop background. The Minotaur actually uses decommissioned Minuteman 2 ICBM missile and solid-propellant motors for its first two stages.
The rockets obviously do not fly in a corkscrew pattern. The swirls come from unburned fuel and water from the contrail being frozen in the less dense upper atmosphere where it is twisted by the wind currents. These frozen particles are high enough in the sky to be reflected by the sun, creating the fantastic spectacle.
This Spaceflight Now article has more details on the actual satellite that was launched.
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