Jeffrey LewisAnother Bulava Failure

After a brief UFO-scare — really, people — the Russians have confirmed that the spiraling light seen from Norway was yet another failed Bulava test. Pavel Podvig has a nice post up.

This is pretty much the best video I can find.

Brian Williams, by the way, is an idiot. “Never seen-before spiral”? Says who, you ninny? I’ve seen that before:

The Russians confirmed that became “unstable” during the third stage, which gave the ‘wegians a little show. ITARTASS published most of the statement:

“On December 9, the Dmitry Donskoi nuclear-powered submarine performed an underwater launch of a Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile from the White Sea, within the framework of design and flight tests,” the press service of the Defense Ministry told Itar-Tass on Thursday.

“After the return of the submarine to a naval base, experts examined telemetry returns. The first two stages of the missile operated in normal mode, but a technical failure occurred at the third stage of the flight trajectory.

“According to telemetry data, the third stage engine was unstable,” the defense ministry said, adding that a state commission for design and flight tests will ascertain the cause of the engine failure.

The reference to telemetry raises the obvious question — given the US-Russian Joint Statement “to continue to work together in the spirit of the START Treaty following its expiration” on December 5 — did Russia encrypt the telemetry?

Update | 3:13 pm Pavel Podvig notes that Russia conducted another missile test, this time of a Topol.


  1. Muskrat

    Wouldn’t be the first time the Russians waited out a deadline. I recall that when the more rigorous INF regime at Votkinsk lapsed, leaving only the START measures, there was a spate of rail car exits in the subsequent 2-3 days.

  2. Pavel (History)

    On the telemetry, START gave a generous allowance of eleven flight tests a year without telemetry

    It’s interesting, though, that in a couple of last failed Bulava launches they didn’t have telemetry at all – it failed as well.

  3. Georgetown Student (History)

    Well, jeffrey, if you wanted to know if Russia was testing now with encoded telemetry, this double test pretty much seals the deal.

    For Russia to test two missiles, within a few days, including a fairly spectacular failure, shows that they have some reason now to get the tests in.

    Maybe, the upcoming START will allow no tests with encoded telemetry. Russia, knowing that this deal is coming in the pipeline, would try to get in all their secret testing now, before the new treaty is implemented. That, also, is a possibility.

    Finally, why is the Bulava taking so long to construct? Does the missile have a new, more advanced design that is rendering it significantly different from its predecessors?

  4. Muskrat

    The exceptions to START’s telemetry requirements are technically quite narrow. An SS-25 would not normally be subject to those exemptions.

    The larger question is whether Russia gave the US any assurances that the START telemetry rules would be followed, without exception, during the interim between START expiration and a new agreement. If not, they could do anything they wanted, from full encryption to no telemetry at all (a no-no under START) to some sort of interim arrangement (tape exchanges but no interpretive data, etc.)

  5. spaceman africa

    Further confirmation that this was not aliens or LHC (as has been suggested by a disturbingly large number of “internet people”).

    ZCZC FA79
    031230 UTC DEC 09
    1.ROCKET LAUNCHING 2300 07 DEC TO 0600 08 DEC
    09 DC 0200 TO 0900 10 DEC 0100 TO 0900
    65-12.6N 036-37.0E 65-37.2N 036-26.0E
    66-12.3N 037-19.0E 66-04.0N 037-47.0E
    66-03.0N 038-38.0E 66-06.5N 038-55.0E
    65-11.0N 037-28.0E 65-12.1N 036-49.5E
    THEN COASTAL LINE 65-12.2N 036-47.6E

  6. Tom F (History)

    @Georgetown Student

    The first stage of Russia’s previous solid fuel SLBMs were originally manufactured in the Ukraine so that would be a portion of the design they would have to “relearn”.

    Given the chaos of the 90s in Russia and the lack of financing it’s probably safe to assume that they also lost some technical expertise at the Makeyev Design Bureau as well resulting from them having to start the design process pretty much from scratch.

  7. Jochen Schischka (History)

    To Tom F and Georgetown Student:

    Well, the Russians/Soviets have a rather long history of failed solid-fueled SLBM projects, going all the way back to even long before the iron curtain fell; Look e.g. at the RT-15M, the R-31/SSN-17/Snipe or the R-39M/Bark/SSN-X-28 (i think the latter project was mostly cancelled by Putin because of nationalistic reasons, since that missile-type, in essence a modernized version of the apparently proven R-39/SSN-29/Sturgeon, would have been, at least partially, manufactured in the Ukraine – while the Bulava was an all-russian program from the beginning; The alleged development difficulties of that program were just used as a politically correct excuse for cancellation).

    This plus the failure rate of the ‘new’ (note the lower number as on its ‘predecessors’ – maybe this is a cancelled and revived program older than R-31?) R-30/Bulava/SSN-X-30 makes me wonder if the only solid-fueled SLBM that ever actually entered soviet/russian service in large numbers, the R-39/SSN-20/Sturgeon, was as flawless as perceived.
    I mean, hey, if the Soviets were able to overcome the difficulties of ‘converting’ (or rather completely re-designing) the Molodets into an SLBM, why do the Russians nowadays have difficulties to do the same with the Topol-M?
    Yeah, i know, it were the Ukrainians back then yada yada yada…
    You know what: it’s not the smaller diameter that’s making this more difficult per se – the general knowledge how to do this should be available (since those were the times of the Soviet Union, when ‘intellectual property’ was a somewhat unknown expression) because this has already been done successfully (?) in the past.

    In case of the Bulava, i suspect that it’s basically a combination of underfunding, corruption and/or incompetence of senior executives plus shoddy workmanship that causes the troubles.
    Either that, or the SSN-20/Sturgeon didn’t work as advertised, either (and the Politburo stubbornly refused to take notice of that fact back then, just like they did with several other important things, too)…

  8. Jim Oberg (History)

    There’s something still obscure about the ‘spiral’ cloud seen over Norway and at other times — including the next day for the Topol test. I’m not convinced the spiral was a result of a failure — it may be the result of a feature of the third stage, perhaps associated with enhancing resistence to potential boost-phase ABM attack.

    See this remarkable video of the Topol warhead deploy (??) flare and spiral.

    В небе над Уфой НЛО сняли на видео
    Светящийся объект двигался по вечернему небу с большой скоростью, а потом «взорвался»
    [видео – dramatic burst of light and short-lived spiral]
    Булат БАШИРОВ — 11.12.2009 12:18

    See also video at 12 декабря 2009 г. 01:35
    Необычную “комету” увидели жители российских городов

    which includes the quotation

    Светящийся конус и спираль оказались инверсионным следом ракеты “Топол”

  9. Jochen Schischka (History)

    Interesting links, Mr. Oberg!

    First of all, i think the reference to the Topol-‘spiral’ may be hinting at the spin-up of the warhead at the end of the ‘bussing phase’ (aka after trajectory fine-tuning and alignment for reentry). But i have doubts that that is what caused the observed phenomenon (BTW, Topol only has a single warhead while Topol-M and Bulava apparently use MIRV-technology) – the upwards-pointing ‘contrail’ seems to be spiraling, too, which would be inconsistent with a short-duration RV-spin-up. Additionally, according to Mr. Podvig’s homepage, the Topol wasn’t launched until the next day at 15:35 MSK, not during the night, so this would definitely disqualify the Topol-launch as a candidate for the ‘UFO’ (unless russian missiles use some sort of time-warping-technology…).

    I’m beginning to suspect that the ‘norwegian spiral’ possibly was an effect created by a solid-booster thrust termination system (possibly due to misalignment of the exhaust ports or, alternatively, failure?) – although these systems usually avoid generating any rolling moment (rather counterproductive for accuracy!). Other explanations like a ruptured booster-casing or a failure of the nozzle/thrust-vectoring system aren’t off the table, either.

    On the other hand, i must admit that i still haven’t yet fully understood the configuration of the Bulava (too little verifiable/too much inconsistent open-source material available!); Is it three solid-fueled stages (apparently with a smaller-diametered third stage surrounded by the warheads on a ring-like post-boost-vehicle -> Trident-style), or is it only two large-diameter solid-fueled stages (second stage thrust-terminated) plus a liquid-fueled ‘oversized bus’ (which contributes a significant portion to the overall delta-v, possibly using a turbopump-main-engine in addition to the traditional pressure-fed steering thrusters -> Shtil/Sineva-style)?
    I’d tend to prefer the latter type, since this would potentially provide a high maneuverability-reserve during bussing/third-stage operation, especially if warhead off-loading is an option (plus, it might be more consistent with the shape of the nose-cone and ‘russian traditions’).
    In this case, another possible explanation for the observed phenomenon may be excessive sloshing of the third-stage’s propellants (resembling the mode of failure of the upper stage of the second Falcon-1).

  10. TheAnalyst (History)

    You folks cannot believe how much difficulty I have been having in convincing some serious numbskulls that this was in fact a failed Rocket/Missile launch, as opposed to HAARP, Alien “Blue Beams”, “Time Portals”, etc. I actually wrote out the explanation before the Russians even made their confirmation press release, and since then I have produced more, and more evidence confirming this, yet some people simply want this to be some sort of otherworldly conspiracy. I cannot believe how frustrating some people are, and thanks to you folks for your in-depth level-headed analysis. I appreciate it tremendously.

    BTW, I believe that the spiral was brought about due to aerosolized fuel particles. If however, this was not a failure, but rather an intended feature as mentioned by Jim, then I find that specific aspect more terrifying than any sort of “Alien” Conspiracy that anyone could ever think of. As if defeating a Third-Stage isn’t difficult enough already.

    Here is a YouTube video of a 1988 Missile Failure over China which produced the same effect. If you watch it long enough, you will actually notice a minor explosion before the incident, which seems to denote a stage separation failure. Everyone claims that it’s an “Alien Wormhole” though. Heck, I’ve even seen people calling other Missile videos/Photographs “Alien Wormholes”, even though the same pictures have been replicated thousands of times from known Rocket launches. Is everyone on the Internet completely nuts now-a-days?

  11. Jochen Schischka (History)


    Wow, that is indeed a close match to the ‘norwegian UFO’, thanks for posting the link!
    Rather interesting is the similarity in both cases of what i’m inclined to dub the ‘black hole effect’: when the booster burns out, no new luminating gasses are emitted from the center of the spiral while the already emitted gas drifts outwards (since it retains its exhaust speed and ejection angle in vacuum), so a growing ‘black hole’ in the center of the spiral forms before the whole phenomenon completely fades away.
    Do we have any data on when and where that ‘chinese UFO’ happened (my chinese is..well, non-existent…)? Could this be a recently failed JL-2 launch?

    “BTW, I believe that the spiral was brought about due to aerosolized fuel particles.”

    Good point (although ‘dispersed’ may be a better description than ‘aerosolized’ in vacuum)! The existence of a more or less opaque ‘contrail’ may be an indication for a solid-fueled booster, since liquid-fueled rockets usually don’t form smoke-trails like this, especially out of the atmosphere.
    An interesting difference in both cases is the color: the ‘norwegian spiral’ seems to be bluish-white while the chinese one is yellowish.
    Has anybody an idea what type of solid propellant composition emits exhaust gasses in bluish color (white, yellow and gray are common and can be traced back to elements like aluminum, beryllium, lithium and magnesium)? Could this be a bastardly shade of gray (pointing in the magnesium direction)? Or an effect associated with an injection-type TVC?

    “If however, this was not a failure, but rather an intended feature”

    I’d definitely say that this was clearly a failure (which has already been admitted by the Russians, if i got that right) and not intended to happen (e.g. see the earlier mentioned ‘black hole effect’ due to an uncontrolled burn-out of the stage). In my opinion, we should not make the mistake to misinterpret this as usual part of the post-boosting-process (aka warhead-spin-up), like the russian media apparently tries to imply (or misunderstands…).

    Last but not least:

    “Is everyone on the Internet completely nuts now-a-days?”

    I’ve been asking myself the same question over and over again, too. The majority of people obviously do not understand what they are seeing, and instead of thoroughly investigating for a realistic explanation (which can be a rather frustrating and/or elaborate exercise, especially if ‘top secret’-technology or, in this case literally, ‘rocket-science’ is involved) simply accept sensationalistic pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo!
    This way, what i’d identify as a flight of F-14s on afterburners at medium height on nighttime maneuvers becomes an astonishingly close formation (“no human pilot could ever endure such maneuvers…”) of gigantic, high-flying, extra-terrestrial, mysteriously glowing flying saucers moving at hypersonic speeds and turning in excess of 50 Gs to others. I’d even go as far to say that most if not all UFO-sightings in the past decades may be based on misinterpreted missile tests or other, undisclosed military activity.

  12. AnotherViewpoint

    A missile/rocket that spirals but is still under control throughout the flight would be awfully hard to hit with a missile shield defensive weapon. Apparently no one believes this is possible.

  13. Jochen Schischka (History)


    The question is not if this is possible. Comparably simple tweaks to the guidance programming plus enhancements of the steering mechanisms and the structure should do the trick.

    The big question is:

    Would such a course of action be wise?

    First of all, maneuvering always brings the risk of small errors, so excessive maneuvering would with some certainty degrade the overall accuracy, probably to inacceptable values.
    But that is not the big show-stopper per se (typical solution for the accuracy problem: add a warhead with a similarly bigger radius of effect).
    Since part of the available thrust-vector would always be deflected, an unacceptably large amount of propellant would not be available for acceleration purposes. Additionally, the structure would have to be strengthened to handle the continouous exposure to non-neglectable lateral forces. The same also applies to the in this case constantly loaded steering components. Thus, due to this loss in efficiency and, at the same time, growth in inert mass, either the possible payload (contradicting the inaccuracy-cure of a larger warhead) or the maximum range would have to shrink or the size/overall take-off-weight of the missile would have to grow, all in significant manner, even if all these measures would be implemented at the same time.
    “Less bang for the buck”, so to speak. I’m inclined to say probably even “too little bang for too many bucks”…
    And let’s not forget that a corresponding adaption of an ABM-system in the future can not be excluded, either (Hey, who would have dared to dream about directly impacting something as small and fast as a MIRV-warhead on an intercontinental trajectory head-on twenty years ago?).
    Not to mention that such a ‘high-mobility-boosting’-technique would anyways only have an impact on boost-phase interceptors. Neither mid-course (like GBI) nor final-phase (like the russian A-135) systems would be affected at all.