There wasn't a missile launched off the coast of California yesterday. And there wasn't a lot of press about a missile in the world news. But there was a lot of buzz around the US about a contrail a news helicopter filmed around sunset yesterday. He thought it looked like a missile launch. The Navy said they didn't fire a missile. The Air Force said they didn't see any missiles on radar. And no oceanographers came forward to claim a mystery missile splashed down in the Pacific disturbing the great garbage patch.
I read the progression of news on IEEE Spectrum, which I tend to trust as a more scientific source than most others. I follow them on Twitter. They post links to new stories when something is going on. (I used to fork over $105 a year dues to be a member of the IEEE so I know it's actually a funded institute with paid writers. That's the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in case you wondered. It's one of the largest professional organizations in the world. And yes, they let physicists in too if you are working as an electronics engineer and have a member vouch for you. I notice Dr. Ian O'Neil cites the IEEE in his article too.) They started out with "Whose Missile Was Launched 35 miles West of Los Angeles?" But they quickly realized that "whose missile?" was the wrong question. One of the first things the author did was check to see if there were any official warnings to mariners and pilots to watch out for something shooting up through their airspace. There was nothing. The Navy doesn't just shoot stuff into space without making sure everybody is cleared out of the way. One of the commenters in an early IEEE story said the same thing I was wondering, where's it supposed to have come down? Seems important but nobody really addressed it in any of the stories I read. So it was pretty easy to eliminate a missile as the source of this trail in the sky at sunset. The right question was "what makes this contrail look like a missile launch?" Then it was just question of finding an expert in contrails to see if what was unusual to our untrained eyes was normal to them. Yep. Normal. Just an airplane.
Conveniently enough I just happened to reread an old Bad Astronomy article earlier today explaning why the moon looks so big on the horizon. Apparently our brains suck at judging size and distance in the sky. So I was primed for the thorough explanation by the contrail specialist. Good day for the critical thought process.
|Contrails at sunset can look like a lot of things they aren't. These aren't meteors.|
*Somebody should make up a cocktail called The Contrail. It could be huge in bars in LA this week.