A spiraling ball of light spotted in the night sky above the Middle East Thursday evening was probably a ballistic missile being tested by the Russian military, rather than a visitor from outer space.
The glowing light's smoky, swirling descent was witnessed by people in Israel, Lebanon, Armenia, Turkey, Cyprus, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries, and footage of the event quickly appeared on YouTube.
According to MSNBC, some witnesses suggested on Twitter that the light was a good omen for Syria's revolution, while others worried it was a bad sign for Syria, potentially signaling the use of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, hundreds of Israelis flooded police hotlines with UFO reports, according to the Israeli news service Ynetnews.
But the light was reminiscent of other glowing spirals that have been observed during ballistic missile tests, such as one sighted over Norway in 2009. That time, the light was caused by a failed test missile that was releasing burning fuel as it spun.
And indeed, later Thursday, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that the "Topol" Intercontinental Ballistic Missile had been successfully test-fired at 9:39 p.m. (Moscow time) from the Astrakhan region in central Russia. Russian sources said the missile "accurately hit its target" in the Kazakh firing range, but Yigal Pat-El, chairman of the Israel Astronomical Association, told Ynetnews that the missile "most likely spun out of control, and its remnants and the fuel was what people saw."
It could be that the Topol missile's spiraling behavior is a feature, not a malfunction, according to NBC News space analyst James Oberg. He said it "may be associated with guidance, or decoy deploy, or enhancing hardness against U.S. boost-phase antimissile weapons."