Thinking Tech

The mysterious California missile launch that wasn't

The mysterious California missile launch that wasn't

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A massive contrail off the coast of California is certainly unusual, but a look back at a similar scare points to jet contrails, not rocket smoke.

Less than 24 hours ago, a local news helicopter spotted a stunning contrail off the coast of California, near Los Angeles. From the helicopter, and to other observers, the contrail appeared to run vertically, as though it had been left by a missile.

One problem! Authorities, including the Pentagon, say that they aren't aware of a missile launch taking place anywhere near there. This would be deeply alarming if not for one thing: the contrail probably wasn't left by a missile at all.

Here's the photo (and accompanying video) that has sent the national press into a frenzy:

This is an alarming sight. It's a plume that evoke Space Shuttle launches and ICBMs, and it's right off the coast of a major city. This initial feeling, and the contrail's outward dissimilarities with cloud and contrail formations usually seen from the ground, have led many news organizations to assume that it was left my some kind of rocket or missile, leading them to speculate further about accidental launches, secret weapons tests, or worse.

Before letting our imaginations run away with us, let's have a look at another photo:

This photo was taken over a year ago, just next door in San Clemente, California. According to the blog Contrail Science, this contrail was also thought to have been caused by a missile, prompting concern in some circles, albeit to a much smaller degree than we're seeing today.

The kicker? This contrail, which is arguably even more rocket-like than the one making news today, was caused by a typical commercial jet. Contrail Science explains:

The idea that it’s a missile launch comes from three misconceptions. Firstly that the trail is vertical – it’s not, it’s a horizontal trail, at around 32,000 feet (about six miles)...

Secondly there’s the misconception of direction, that it’s flying away from the viewer, when it’s actually flying towards the viewer. This is because the “base” of the contrail seems wider than the tip. Perspective tells the brain that this mean the base is closer. But actually you can see the base has been greatly spread by the wind...

Thirdly there’s the idea that it goes all the way down to the ground. Now that might be true if the Earth was flat, but the Earth is round, and things go beneath the horizon eventually, no matter how high they are. A plane 200 miles away but five miles up is always below the horizon.

This explanation for the contrail in San Clemente is consistent with today's contrail in LA, meaning that the so-called rocket contrail is really just one of the hundreds of visible vapor trails left by jet engines above the LA area every day; just another long tail of condensation caused by superheated exhaust fumes. This one was just captured from an odd perspective, in unusual light, at the perfect time. From another location, or a satellite view, it would be utterly unremarkable.

But don't take my word for it--here's a Flickr search for "sunset contrails." Look familiar?

Granted, until a missile launch is completely and totally ruled out, or a flight path compatible with the time and location of the contrail sighting is identified, there's no way to know for sure what caused this spectacle. Until we hear one way or the other, though, those are our questions--save the coverup theories for later.

The grand technological apparatus of the US military may be unwieldy, but not to this extent.

UPDATE: Interviewed in the New Scientist, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge lends his support to this theory.

UPDATE II: A longer video posted at NECN shows the craft later in flight. At a certain point, it stops creating contrails. Jets only create contrails when the relative humidity of the surrounding air is extremely high; when the plane ascends into dry air, the effect ceases.

UPDATE III: The Pentagon has chimed in to say that this was "likely" a jet contrail, and that its investigation is closed. Make of that what you will.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure