Giant red blob seen in the skies over the western USA

One day after a Chinese rocket disintegrated brightly over the western USA, another set of strange lights appeared over the same region. This time it was NASA’s doing. Before sunrise on Feb. 25th, a Terrier-Black Brant research rocket lifted off from White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, carrying an experiment to Earth’s ionosphere. Vapors released by the rocket created a luminous red blob in the dawn sky, shown here over Mesa, Arizona:


“I got up to put the garbage outside just before sunrise and swore I saw something glowing in the sky,” reports photographer Jasper Nance. “I thought I was crazy so I ran inside to grab my camera. Once my eyes were dark adjusted there was no missing the huge red splotch just above where the sun might rise. I watched it for about half an hour until the sunrise was too bright to see it any longer”

redblob_stripEarly-rising sky watchers as far away as Utah saw the cloud. Some likened it to the aurora borealis. Most were surprised by the apparition. Nance, however, correctly guessed that it came from White Sands.

The ionosphere is a layer of Earth’s upper atmosphere where solar UV radiation knocks electrons off atoms and molecules. Plasma in the ionosphere is crucial to over-the-horizon radio communications, and also affects the quality of GPS navigation and other modern technologies. According to a White Sands press release, ground stations monitored the cloud to gather data on “natural wave-like structures referred to as traveling ionospheric disturbances.”

Story from NASA’s

54 thoughts on “Giant red blob seen in the skies over the western USA

  1. I hope this isn’t something about dispersing aerosols as a test of that anti-warming theory. Anybody have a handle on the intent here?

    • Did you read the press release? Aerosols are tropospheric and stratospheric phenomena. This appears to have been a gas release that was promptly ionized (after all, it was in the ionosphere).

      Designed to reach an altitude of over 100 miles, the research rocket will release a small quantity of vapor—about as much as is contained in a BBQ grill propane tank—into the near-vacuum of space to study processes responsible for formation of the Earth’s ionosphere, the region of near-Earth space where electrons naturally separate from molecules and float separately to create a plasma, or ionized gas.

  2. In (I think 1971) I was in my parent’s garden and looked in the night sky and saw a glowing ball over the western sky. I went in the house to get my camera and tripod and successfully photographed it. As a then 15 year old I thought it might have been a UFO (I am a lot wiser now). The following day I heard it was gas jettisoned from a satellite and it looked very similar to the photograph above but without the colour.

  3. Maybe its our answer to the Russian HEMP weapon that they are doing dry bomber runs in our airspace. Just sayin’.

  4. Wow, so they’ve discovered that when gases at near vacuum pressures interact with high energy particles the gases will radiate. This is news? Their problem is that they think that gases can do this at 1 atm when heated to a screaming 15°C or 20°C by extremely low energy LWIR, conduction and convection.

    • I know you are being facetious, but actually they are taking advantage of that well know fact to study a phenomenon that has been seen at low resolution via radio wave distortion from satellite transmissions. By placing the glowing gas in that atmosphere and studying its propagation from the ground, they can observe the ionospheric waves that create this distortion in an attempt to correct for it in precision receivers.

  5. “…as much as is contained in a BBQ grill propane tank…”
    And if your barbecue can poison the whole atmosphere, then you know how your (yes, yours!) SUV can kill off all the polar bears. Science is all about logic, right?
    On the other hand, could we please have some more of these Damnation Alley SFX?

  6. As a very young boy in the early 60’s in Bakersfield, Ca, we saw some very interesting things in the twilight sky to the west. Somehow my dad seemed to know they were going to appear before the fact.

  7. I was hoping something like this would come up so I could ask if the IR radiation bounces off the atmosphere like some radio frequency radiation does? Anyone?

    • IR radiation is a response to molecular excitation (vibration modes), whereas the red glow is in the visible spectrum and is a response to atomic excitation of the electron shells. Nucleus excitation would release even higher frequency radiation in the xray/gamma spectrum etc.
      At the molecular level, only molecules with net electric dipole moments are IR active, due vibrations and rotations along and around axes of symmetry. Diatomic molecules like O2 and N2 have no net electric dipole moment, so have no IR spectrum. Here are the modes for CO2, which give rise to its IR activity.

    • … so to answer your question about IR ‘reflectivity’ etc., the reflection of radio waves is due to ionization effects changing the refractive index and causing the radio waves to bend back to Earth or being totally absorbed, depending on the height and intensity of ionization.
      But at infrared frequencies, electromagnetic radiation behaves more like particles (photons) than optical waves, so its behavior is dominated by Kirchoff’s Thermal Radiation Law, which states that at a specific wavelength radiation is absorbed and retransmitted with the same efficiency. So good absorbers tend to be good emitters etc. But the retransmitted radiation may head off in a different direction, so a portion of the upwelling IR may be absorbed by GHG’s and, in effect, “reflected” back as downwelling IR.

    • BTW the red color of this man-made blob is most likely to due the ionization of atomic oxygen (O). Normally, oxygen occurs in nature as a diatomic molecule (O2), which produces a green glow when ionized. The atomic oxygen quickly recombines and disappears at lower altitudes, but can be somewhat persistent at very high altitudes, where the probability of collisions is much less likely.
      So the red-green color of ionized O and O2 can serve as a proxy altimeter to determine “how high is that glow?” For example, in auroral imagery:

    • Jim F
      Two things: all radiation can be refracted so that would change the direction of IR radiation. Then, the frequency is so high (short wavelength) that the emissions, which are ‘transmissions’ are line-of-sight.
      Taken together it means the ‘screen’ of an emitted IR photon is just a little larger than the 360 degree 3D view available because it includes a little of the over-the-horizon territory.
      There is a hypothesis that radio waves can be refracted by the E and F layers of the ionosphere if injected at the right angle (not reflected). This allows a signal to be injected, transported a long way around the world, and then emerge to hit the ground with very little attenuation. This has been conclusively demonstrated at much lower frequencies than IR.

      • Yes, infrared can be refracted, but only in media much denser than the ionosphere. Edward Appleton received the Nobel Prize in 1947 for proving the existence of the ionosphere and its refractive effects on radio waves.
        Turns out that the semiconductor element germanium (Ge, AN:32) is transparent to infrared in the 2-14 micron region, so can be used to create lenses and other optics for infrared light. In visible light it is completely opaque.

      • Thanks Crispin and johanus. Bending rather than reflecting would better explain how low power citizens band radio transmissions sometimes were received from hundreds of miles away. I was never sure weatheror not to believe that would happen.

  8. There are researchers everywhere producing reports about their “findings” and urging further research.
    We only have one planet.
    It’s critical that this be looked into by those who are smart at this kind of stuff.
    We cannot have too much data. More findings must be found.
    The short and long term impacts to all of the eco things needs to be found out.

  9. I just hope it was not a Freon-like gas, and if it was, it was an ‘environmentally friendly’ Freon… On the other hand, the glow is like that of a nitrogen plasma.
    I wish they at least told us what could fall down on our heads… 😉

  10. Dr. Tony Phillips does a really great job with his site, and the Earth To Sky Calculus class might have swayed me away from being a Mass-Com major (way back when…). I visit there often, as well as Solarham and other spaceweather sites. Perhaps his studies on high altitude radiation and Forbush Decreases might bring more understanding to cloud formation. Being a “semi-Soonist” I think more focus should be put on exploring the relationship between planetary weather trends and spaceweather conditions.

  11. As a youngster I recall my father getting me up one night to see a high altitude nuclear detonation, which looked like aurora to me. I seem to recall it as Teak, but I was only 6 in 1958, and so I’m now thinking it was Starfish in 1962. Anyone else recall this?

  12. That was no Chinese rocket, it was the spaceship making a low pass over to draw the attention of the Believers to prepare for their evacuation … you got that, Mosh ?

  13. A free show – as good as radio. Now, if I could just figure out why my classical music station keeps getting swamped in the signal of that Mexican music channel – the one with the loud singers and the harps and accordions. Does this have anything to do with Obama’s immigration policy?

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