ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – An early-morning missile test in New Mexico left a white contrail that quickly turned into a corkscrew visible for hundreds of miles Thursday.
The unarmed Juno target missile launched at 6:55 a.m. from an old military depot in northwestern New Mexico and was aimed at White Sands Missile Range, some 215 miles away. Officials said a Patriot missile successfully intercepted it and it disintegrated in midair.
White Sands officials said they received numerous reports of the contrail being spotted in the Phoenix area. Observers also took photos of the corkscrew-shaped cloud from Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, more than 850 miles away.
A similar launch in 2012 created a buzz when reports flooded in about a colorful contrail that was visible from southern Colorado west to Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
This time, officials shared information about the launch in advance with communities as far away as Palm Springs, California. Radio stations in Arizona also were broadcasting stories about what people could expect to see in the pre-dawn sky.
"Usually what happens is it's the contrail that causes the commotion," said White Sands spokeswoman Cammy Montoya, noting that many people call in asking if it's a UFO.
The shape and color of the contrail is different each time. It depends on the conditions at the time of the launch. For example, the rising sun has to illuminate the twisting cloud-like formation in just the right way. The amount of crystallized water vapor in the atmosphere can affect the color.
White Sands officials said the airspace over Fort Wingate, the site of the launch, and the drop zone for the booster was restricted for several hours Thursday. The airspace over White Sands is already a restricted zone.
Since 1997, there have been 14 target missions from Fort Wingate to White Sands. The last one was in September 2012.