Visual observations of launches from Plesetsk

Sven Grahn

Several observations of launches from Plesetsk have been made. Personally, I have investigated several of these. In this brief account, I wish to show examples of such observations.

Observations of  Meteor 2

Many people in northern Sweden observed strange light phenomena in the sky during the early morning hours of 6 October 1969. Police officers, meteorologists, and shift workers saw a bright object appear in the east at 0147 UT and disappear in a northeasterly direction at about 0205 UT +/- 3 minutes. The object varied in size and there is only one estimate of its size that is reliable (1/4 the size of the Moon). The object ejected flames backwards and was described as being trailed by a hazy plume of smoke. At first the object went almost straight up from the horizon, but after some time it turned to the left (north) to move almost parallel with the horizon. Later still, it descended below the horizon gradually. When the object "turned left" a smaller and fainter object appeared next to it. Staging? The observations of witnesses are summarized in the sketches on the top right.

These observations were widely reported in the local and national press here in Sweden , and in early November 1969 I was contacted by UFO groups who wanted to check if this was a satellite launch, which they suspected. At the time I quickly identified this object as being the launch vehicle of Meteor 2 launched from Plesetsk.

I was able to reconstruct the motion of the bright object across the sky, mainly because of a very accurate observation made by two police officers in the village Kramfors. They said the bright object reached an elevation slightly below the star Mizar, which happened to be about 31 degrees above the horizon. The meteorologist at the airport of Sundsvall also gave the maximum elevation as 25 degrees. The time of disappearance of the object is a bit unclear, probably because  a smoke cloud remained visible for quite some time.

I have plotted my interpretation of the path of the bright object across the sky together with a hypothetical orbital path of Meteor 2 back-tracked to the zero-th orbit. This graph shows that the bright object quickly approached the path of Meteor 2. Therefore, it seems that the Vostok booster used a direct ascent, i.e. it made a steep ascent directly to orbital height instead of entering an elliptical parking orbit and entering final orbit on the opposite side of the earth.

The reason for the observations of Meteor 2 must be sought in the fact that the exhaust plume was in sunlight, while all the observers were in darkness. This conditions was not always satisfied for these launches from Plesetsk.

I am deeply indebted to Mr. Björn Högman of the now-defunct Gothenburg Information Center for Unidentified Flying Objects (GICOFF) for providing me with all the observational material concerning the observations of the launch of Meteor 2 and for making the sketch at the top of the page. Normally, I am skeptical to UFO groups and their methods, but I must admit that Mr. Högman and GICOFF as I knew them in the late 60's were committed to rigorous scientific method in their analysis of observations. They did provide me with many interesting observations, including that of the intercept of Kosmos-459 by Kosmos-462.

Observations of Meteor 13

Meteor-13 (1972-085A) was launched at 2204 UT from Plesetsk on 26 October 1972 by an 8A92M rocket, a modernized version of the Vostok booster. The orbit ranged between  851 km and 880 km and the inclination was 81.2 degrees.

The all-sky camera at the Kiruna Geophysical Observatory (nowadays the Swedish Institute of Space Physics) recorded the launch on 16 mm film with one frame every minute. The large plume (the size of the Moon) can first be seen in the picture taken at 2209 UT at 20o elevation and 48o azimuth (see strip of pictures on the right). Three minutes later the elevation was 11o  and the azimuth 31o. In the picture at 2213 UT the plume is barely visible, while a very bright spot appears in the following image. The absence of a bright spot at 2213 UT may represent a brief period of coasting and the bright spot that appeared at 2214 UT is the third stage burning.

I am indebted to Mr. Torbjörn Löfgren of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics for providing these pictures. For those who wish to understand how an all-sky camera works the institute provides a description.

Meteor 2-7

A very good picture of a launch from Plesetsk was taken at the time of launch of Meteor 2-7 which took place on 15 May 1981 at about 2150 UT. The satellite achieved an orbit at  835 - 888 km at an inclination of 81.3 degrees.

The picture on the left was taken by Susanne Hultman, a student at the University of Umeå in Northern Sweden, while her group of astronomy students gathered at the roof of the university building. The slight blurring is caused by the 0.5-second exposure time.

I got this picture from her instructor Dr Stig Lindgren. Click here for Susanne's own website (in Swedish).

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