On September 20, 1977, between midnight and the early hours of the morning, people over a vast region in eastern Europe, stretching from Copenhagen and Helsinki in the west to Vladivostok in the east, observed an unusual light phenomenon in the sky. According to various eyewitness reports, an unidentified luminous object appeared suddenly on the dark sky, sending pulsed shafts of light to earth. It then moved slowly and silently towards the city of Petrozavodsk and spread over it in the form of an enormous “jellyfish”. It remained suspended there, showering the city with a multitude of extremely thin beams, like pouring rain. After some time, the beams of light vanished, and the “jellyfish” turned into a bright semicircle and resumed its movement in the direction of Lake Onega, where it slowly dissipated. The entire phenomenon lasted for 10 to 12 minutes.
The wake of a Falcon 9 rocket seen from California on 22 December 2017. Residents of Petrozavodsk saw something similar on 20 September 1977. Photo: Kevin Gill/Wikimedia Commons
The event was widely reported the following day in newspapers. In Helsinki, many eyewitness reportedly saw a “glowing ball”, and in Turku, two men reported spotted “a spinning object similar to a lifebuoy”. In Denmark, pilots flying over Copenhagen also saw a glowing object.
The luminous amorphous object was reported from various places across northwestern Soviet Union. Eyewitnesses included a wide cross-section of people such as paramedic, seamen, military and local airport staff and even amateur astronomers. The director of the Petrozavodsk Hydrometeorological Observatory, Yu. Gromov, told a local news agency that no analogues of this had ever been observed in nature before by the staff of the meteorological service in Karelia.
The frightening apparition was in fact the launch of a Soviet spy satellite named Kosmos-955, that was launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, situated some 350 km east of Petrozavodsk. The identification of the “jellyfish UFO” with Kosmos-955’s booster contrails by the western press took only a few hours, but the reports were suppressed in the Soviet, where the ghostly spectacle excited many UFO rumors. With time, eyewitness testimony became garbled and the stories turned progressively more bizarre. One newspaper reported that the UFO was “as big as a football field” and that the UFO’s rays had drilled holes into the pavement and through windows of houses. A doctor reported that his ambulance went out of control when the UFO appeared. Others accused America of a nuclear attack.
A couple of rare photos of the Petrozavodsk phenomenon.
For the Soviet government, the case had become an acute embarrassment. They trotted out a series of scientists to assure the public that all was well. At first, they explained that it was a rocket stage burning up. “The visibility depends on the materials of the sputnik,” Vladimir Krat, director of Pulkovo Observatory stated. “Sputniks can explode on reentry sometimes and the products of the explosion can remain in the air for a long time.”
When it became apparent that this was not convincing anyone, a new explanation was cranked up. M. Dmitriyev, Doctor of Chemical Sciences offered: “The phenomenon was due to the formation of an airglow zone in the atmosphere, a so-called chemiluminescence zone.” He then explained what chemiluminescence was and how nitrous oxide pollution from factories enhanced it. In 1979, the Soviet press issued yet another explanation attributing the phenomenon to “physical changes in the upper atmosphere,” such as geo-magnetism.
Even today, the “Petrozavodsk phenomenon” is hotly debated among Russian UFO enthusiasts.
Sightings similar to the Petrozavodsk phenomenon have been observed many times during rocket launches, especially during dusk or early morning when the sun is below the horizon but sunlight can still reach higher altitudes and reflect off the plume gases emitted by the rocket boosters. This luminous apparition often looks like a jellyfish. Here are a few examples:
Falcon 9 launch on 22 December 2017. This contrail was observed from Long Beach, California, more than 100 miles southeast from its launch site. Photo: Toy135/Wikimedia Commons
Launch of Falcon 9, seen from Florida on 29 June 2018. Photo: SpaceX/Wikimedia Commons
An unusual spiral seen in Norway in 2009 during a failed test firing of a Russian Bulava missile.
Launch of the Argentine satellite SAOCOM from the Vandenberg United States Air Force Base on 7 October 2018. Photo: Michael Peterson/Wikimedia Commons
A nebulous mass seen during Falcon 9 launch on October 7, 2018, viewed from Pico Rivera, CA. Photo: Brian Gonzalez/Wikimedia Commons
Falcon 9 launch from Vandenberg, California on 7 October 2018. Photo: Kevin Gill/Wikimedia Commons
In this Falcon 9 launch, the first and second stage can be seen separating. Photo: Marty B/Wikimedia Commons
# Yu. V. Platov, B. A. Sokolov, The Study of Unidentified Flying Objects in the Soviet Union, http://www.noufors.com/Documents/Platov.pdf
# James E. Oberg, UFOs and Outer Space Mysteries, http://www.jamesoberg.com/ufoosm-petrozavodsk.PDF
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petrozavodsk_phenomenon