Early on Sunday's star-spangled night, a rocket's glare surprised some area residents and sky-gazers when it lit the eastern horizon.

The Department of Defense launched a rocket from NASA's Wallops Island, Va., facility at about 8:30 p.m., sending it 250 miles into the upper atmosphere to conduct tests, according to the agency's Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.

"It looked like a big question mark," in the rising constellation of Orion, said Geoff Chester, of the Einstein Planetarium at the Air and Space Museum. Chester and Naval Observatory astronomer James DeYoung were filming the night sky at Rixeyville, Va., when they captured the unannounced launch.

What the observers caught was a Defense Department payload, named SPEAR I, designed to conduct atmospheric experiments for the Strategic Defense Initiative. The payload was designed by Utah State University. There were no arms or nuclear components involved and the experiment cost $2.5 million, according to officials.

The flight Sunday lasted 10 minutes before the rocket splashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Tom Huntington, the managing editor of Air & Space, witnessed the short flight from Connecticut Avenue. "I happened to be glancing up, right in town, when I saw a bright orange light passing through Orion. It left a cloud," he said.

The U.S. Naval Observatory reported receiving a handful of calls about the rocket. Among the callers was Meta Stephenson of Centreville, who witnessed it with a friend.

"I thought it was a falling star," Stephenson said. "Then it started getting brighter and brighter, instead of fading. It looked like a firework, but it didn't explode, it stayed round."