UPDATE (Dec. 10): Reports are now flooding in to support the rocket failure scenario (although the Russian military still refuses to confirm the link between a confirmed missile failure and the spiral).
The Defense Ministry announced that in the morning of Dec. 9, a submarine-launched Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) suffered its eighth failure in 12 tests. This failure suddenly became a huge political problem when the third stage of the ICBM suffered a technical fault and started to spin in the Norwegian dawn.
"The first two stages of the rocket worked as they should have, however, in the third and final stage of the flight a technical error occurred," the statement said. "According to tests, the third stage's engine was unstable."
The reluctance of the Russian military to admit the fault was probably down to the fact that military contracts for the missile system are going to be negotiated next year.
I'm thinking that high-profile technical issues that result in a huge, beautiful spiral for thousands of people to see and speculate about, triggering the world's media into a speculation frenzy, probably won't make those missile negotiations any easier.
Original report (Dec. 9): Norway often has strange lights dancing around the night sky, but early this morning it wasn't the aurora that captivated many eyewitnesses in the north of the country. A giant spiral had appeared, and at first, there was little explanation as to what might have caused the phenomenon.
"It consisted initially of a green beam of light similar in color to the aurora with a mysterious rotating spiral at one end," said Nick Banbury of Harstad, Norway. "This spiral then got bigger and bigger until it turned into a huge halo in the sky with the green beam extending down to the earth.
"According to the press, this could be seen all over northern Norway and must therefore have been very high up in the atmosphere to be seen hundreds of km apart."
Hubble Sees the Distant Past: Big Pic WIDE ANGLE: Doomsday in 2012?
HowStuffWorks.com: Ten Most Breathtaking Views in the World Top 5 Plans to Ensure Humans Survive The near-perfect spiral appeared at 7:50 a.m. and already the conspiracy theories are out in full-force. Is it some kind of energy weapon? Or was it the Large Hadron Collider (which, coincidentally, has just broken the world record for the most powerful particle collision of all time)?
One thing's for sure, when I spent five months living in the Arctic Circle (on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard), I never saw anything quite like this in the sky - no matter how much øl I'd consumed.
Conspiracies to one side, there's actually a potentially mundane answer to the whole thing, although it's still pretty interesting.
From Dec. 7-10, there was an alert that the Russian Navy was going to carry out missile tests from the White Sea. However, the Northern Fleet denies any link between their tests and the spiral phenomenon.
Could it be some kind of missile test? Yes, says Doug Ellison who created the following animation (posted on The Universe Today) of a spent rocket stage spilling fuel into the atmosphere. The rising sun then did the rest, illuminating the spiral.