California “missle launch” was likely only a jet contrail

November 10, 2010

Monday night must’ve been a slow news night in California, and everywhere really… but what most media has been calling a “mystery missle launch” was probably just a jet airliner contrail. It’s all a matter of perspective, really.

The footage came from a news helicopter that was flying off the coast of Orange County, CA, Monday night. The footage is shot looking westward and the object appears to be a rocket rising from the ocean. But if a jet airliner is flying directly toward you from over the horizon, and leaving a contrail behind it, it will look as though it is rising from the ground going straight up. If the atmospheric conditions are right, the contrail will quickly get widened by upper-level winds, and vortexes left by the plane’s wings can cause a spiral-like appearance. The bright light at the tip of the plume is only visible for a short time, which would indicate that it’s simply the glint of the setting sun reflecting off the plane’s underbelly. After some blog-reading I found that in fact, contrails have been mistaken for missles from this very same area before, and the culprits are planes traveling from Hawaii to Phoenix. There’s also a small possibility that it was a small target rocket from an island west of LA and used to test the military’s new airborne laser defense system, but the company that conducts those tests has said that it did not have any launches that day.

I think what we have here is a case of sensationalist media capitalizing on the mistake of a helicopter news team. Normal people probably see contrails from this same flight path almost every night and may think it’s interesting, but they forget about it and move on. Because it happened to be a news helicopter team who were fooled by the illusion this time, it instantly became a media blitz and got blown waaaay out of proportion. I’m saying I’m 100% sure it was a jet airliner contrail, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. More detailed info on this particular incident’s explanation can be found at NewScientist. Also, a detailed explanation and comparison of this incident to other contrail incidents can be found at the Contrail Science blog.

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