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Robust Aircraft Contrail Fuels Missile Launch Speculation

Missile Launch

November 11, 2010 — The Pentagon is closing the book on a long, thin cloud formation that could be seen for hundreds of miles to the far horizon at sunset over Southern California Monday (November 8), according to the Associated Press. The Pentagon says several factors, including the angle of the setting sun in the clear skies and favorable atmospheric conditions, created a robust contrail and optical illusion that kicked off wild speculation on national television that an unannounced missile launch had occurred.

Video captured by a Los Angeles area television station KCBS fueled the discussion as the vapor trail appears to be going straight up, which led many, including one national TV analyst who claimed that an ICBM had been sent skyward, to believe a missile had been launched.

Contrails form when hot exhaust gases from aircraft at higher altitudes cool rapidly and form clouds. It’s a localized weather phenomenon, and contrails are very long, narrow, and distinctive from other cloud formations. Due to upper level air currents the contrails’ shape rarely remains the same and soon the cloud spreads out. The angle at which the sun struck the contrail along with the angle captured by the video created a common illusion about the orientation of the contrail.

A similar kerfuffle occurred in the same area on New Year’s Eve 2009, when the contrail from a US Airways flight traced the same route between Phoenix and Hawaii. The blogger Unicus, who lists contrail science as his hobby, has authoritatively busted this myth by noting that the same flight that passed over in 2009 passes the same spot every day at 5 p.m.

So, do you believe the Pentagon? What do you think, contrail or missile? Cast your vote in this week’s Nose to Nose poll.

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