Belmont Club

Duck and Cover

Was the mysterious “missile launch” off the California coast just a “jet contrail”? Fox News quotes sources which suggests that it is nothing but an aircraft contrail. What makes it look like a launch plume, they suggest, was the angle of the observer.

According to a post on ContrailScience.com, the visible exhaust from a jet engine, a trail of condensed water vapor called a contrail,  resembles a missile trail when seen from some angles.

Contrail Science writes:

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). … 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. Since it’s still so far away the effects of perspective are greatly diminished, meaning the actual width of the contrail is what is creating the illusion. Imagine is a plane with a 100 mile long spreading contrail were coming towards you; what would it look like? It would look exactly like this.

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. If the horizon is raised (as it is here, with Catalina Island), then the distance is less.

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A pair of Trident SLBM launches

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The California Coast “missile launch”

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Off Florida in 2008 — in this case it’s a contrail after all. But was it in California?

The FAA says its radar detected nothing relevant in the area. According to CNN:

“The FAA ran radar replays of a large area west of Los Angeles based on media reports of the possible missile launch at approximately 5 p.m. (PT) on Monday. The radar replays did not reveal any fast moving, unidentified targets in that area,” said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. “The FAA did not receive reports … of unusual sightings from pilots who were flying in the area on Monday afternoon. …

Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said Tuesday

Lapan said the North American Aerospace Defense Command reported that it could not provide specific details, but that various agencies are trying to find out what happened.

“I don’t know specifically what they are all doing. I just know they have been pinged and that we are talking to the FAA, we are talking to other parts of the U.S. government. We are trying to do everything we can to figure out if anybody has any knowledge of what this event may have been,” Lapan said in off-camera comments to journalists.

“So far we have come up empty,” he added.

Open thread.