An aviation photographer on a flight across Asia captured a remarkable sight: a balloon-shaped light across the sky at dusk. The ghostly formation was formed by a secret missile test by the Chinese government.
The photographer, JPC van Heijst, is a senior officer for Cargolux, a European air cargo delivery service. On the night of July 22, while flying over the western Chinese region of Xinjiang during a trip from Hong Kong to Baku, van Heijst and his crew observed a “an unusual bright spot on the horizon quickly changed into a droplet-shaped bubble that rapidly grew in size and altitude.”
The droplet-shaped bubble:
The 747 continued along its flight path. And then, van Heijst says, “just a few minutes later, the rocket’s exhaust gasses started forming a brightly curved trail that was accompanied by various illuminated spots in the dark sky that varied in colour and shape, probably depending on the angle by which they were illuminated by the sun.”
The end of the secret missile test:
The location of the sighting and the direction in which the lights were observed means it was almost certainly a missile launched from China’s Korla Missile Test Complex. Korla is home to the People’s Liberation Army’s Unit 63618, which is responsible for ballistic missile defences. Western analysts believe the Korla Complex was specifically constructed to launch SC-19 anti-ballistic missile interceptors—which double as anti-satellite weapons. In 2007, a SC-19 was used to destroy a satellite in orbit, earning China worldwide condemnation for the orbital-debris causing event.
As for van Heijst, he says the event took no more than 12 minutes. He also discovered a NOTAM, or “Notice to Airmen” warning to keep out of a nearby area. The Chinese government had filed it for the time of the sighting.
The secret missile test was visible to millions across a swath of China. (Yes, that probably makes it less “secret”). Photos of the test quickly popped up on Chinese social media. van Heijst’s photos, taken much closer to the test, are available on his website here.
This article was originally written for and published by Popular Mechanics USA.