John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Las Vegas and Phoenix were treated to a rare atmospheric lightshow on Thursday morning.
Early-morning carousers in Las Vegas and Phoenix were treated to a rare atmospheric lightshow on Thursday morning. Twisting in the sky like entwined astral slugs, the contrails from a pair of military rockets hovered for several minutes while changing colors in the rays of the rising sun.
The weird sight – which initially had been misreported as a plane crash or a burned-up meteor – was caused by a U.S. Army test that was visible over much of the Southwest. Around 6 a.m., staff at Fort Wingate near Gallup, New Mexico, launched a hulking Juno rocket into the chilly skies. Then the folks at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico unleashed a "Patriot Advanced Capability 3" missile to intercept it. They met, explosions resulted, and presumably there was lots of cheering on the military bases.
The water vapor in the rockets' exhaust quickly froze in the high-altitude environment, producing the wondrous wakes you see in the above (admittedly badly shot) video. Here are a few more views of the rare event: