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What made the mysterious white traces in sky over south-west France?

One person on Twitter asked if it was ‘meteorological modern art’ or whether there was an ‘extra-terrestrial explanation’

The French Defence Ministry confirmed that the cloud formations were caused by an experimental hypersonic glider, the VMaX Pic: Direction générale de l'armement

A hypersonic glider has been tested in southwest France, leaving white traces in the sky. We explain what the mysterious object was and what it means.

What happened?

On Monday (June 26) a strange type of glider was seen in the sky by several residents in the south-west of France. It left white, zig-zag cloud-like formations.

Some Twitter users posted photos of the aftermath. One asked: “Is this meteorological modern art or is there an extra-terrestrial explanation for this drawing in the sky?”

Aliens or weather: Which is it?

Sorry, sci-fi fans and weather watchers, it was neither. 

The day after the glider was seen, France’s defence authority la Direction générale pour l'Armement (DGA) explained that it was the first test of an experimental hypersonic glider, which was fired from the Biscarrosse test centre in Landes.

The glider is called a VMaX. 

What is a VMaX hypersonic glider?

The VMaX is so-named for ‘Véhicule manœuvrant expérimental’, or experimental manoeuvring vehicle. It flew at a speed of over Mach 5, or more than 6,000 km/h, while manoeuvring. 

It is designed to thwart the interception capabilities of a potential adversary and it is this manoeuvering that leaves the tell-tale zigzag trails in the sky.

Hypersonic weapons can travel at speeds of at least 100 km/h per minute. Unlike ballistic missiles, the glider has an unpredictable trajectory, which makes it more difficult for adversaries to intercept, and easier for users to thwart enemy defences.

Why did the test happen this week?

The VMaX project began in January 2019 and is being led by the French rocket manufacturer, the Ariane Group.

In a statement, France’s defence ministry said: ”This first demonstrator contained many on-board technological innovations. Its flight test, on a highly demanding long-range trajectory, represented an unprecedented technical challenge that will pave the way for the future of our national hypervelocity roadmap.”

It said the test enabled the collection of a “large amount of data”, which will now be analysed to help with future experimental flights. The aim is to bring France into the “era of hypersonic weapons”.

When announcing the project in 2019, then-Defence Minister Florence Parly said: “Many nations are developing them, and we have all the skills to make them a reality. We couldn't wait any longer.”

The new project is set to help modernise France’s nuclear arsenal and its current air-to-ground nuclear missiles.

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