UPDATE: Contrail Science writes:
Note to the media – since this was almost certainly Flight AWE808 (US Airways) from Hawaii to Phoenix, why not have a camera crew somewhere in the vicinity (does not need to be exact, or a chopper), at around 5-5:30 today, and if the weather is right you’ll see the same trail again.
Here’s the flight path below for 11/8/10. If anybody gets any new photos today, leave a comment and I’ll get them posted here.
My friend John Coleman (The Weather Channel founder, now at KUSI-TV San Diego) explains it well in this video:
(starts at 45 seconds in)
Original post starts below:
There’s quite a buzz in the blogosphere about this video shot by a KCBS News helicopter. Explanations range from “Moonbeam Gov. Jerry Brown is headed home to visit relatives” to “missile launch kept secret by the Pentagon”.
Whatever it is, I’ve seen nothing like it. The speed doesn’t match a missile, but the trajectory and cloud pattern certainly seems to.
Perhaps our readers can help figure this out. One alert reader “slp” posted in comments a link to a likely Occams Razor style explanation.
watch the video:
For people outside the USA that may not be able to see the first video, try this one:
For reference, here’s a certified missile shot from the Air Force Space Command:
I’m wondering if this isn’t some stunt plane practicing over the ocean (where the pilot doesn’t have to worry about buildings, power lines, towers, guy wires, FAA airspace permissions, etc.) with a smoke generator turned on? Watch this video from about 15-20 seconds in. That looks like what the “missile” video is. Add some red sunset lighting and you’ve got instant “slow moving missile”.
UPDATE: Thanks to alert reader “slp” who wrote: “Likely a contrail:”
Indeed it looks very much like this jet contrail seen off San Clemente, from Contrail Science Overflow, excerpted below:
An interesting contrail cropped up off the coast of San Clemente, Orange County, California on December 31st 2009. The curious shape led some people to think it’s a missile launch, which it does kind of look like (all taken from San Clemente)
“Missile-like” contrail. Note this is the Dec 31st contrail, not the Nov 8th CBS one. That’s at the bottom of the post.
This view is from Corona del Mar, about 20 miles Northeast of San Clemente:
Here’s a similar photo (of a different contrail, obviously) on the same day at the other side of the country:
Here’s the idea with math:
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). It’s the same as this:
This contrail is no more vertical than the road is, and nor are the power lines at 45 degrees. Everything is horizontal – it’s the just the angle you are viewing it from. All of these show horizontal contrails.
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. Here’s some math:
This diagram is not to scale, but the math is the same regardless. The solid curved line is the surface of the earth. The dot at the top is San Clemente. The little triangle is Catalina. “d” is the distance to Catalina (d=35 miles). “c” the amount of Catalina that is visible above the horizon (c=0.05 miles, really a bit more, but let’s be conservative). “a” is the altitude of the plane, (a = 6 miles). “r” is the radius of the earth (r=3963 miles).
The green wavy line is the contrail. Notice it’s at a fixed height above the surface of the earth, and is going directly towards the OC.
The point labeled (0,0) is the center of the earth. (0,0) means X=0, Y=0, where X is horizontal and Y is vertical. What we want to know is how far away the plane is, the value x. We do this with cartesian geometry, noting that the lowest visible point of the trail is at the intersection of the dotted line, which is a circle of radius (r+a), hence the equation x^2 + y^2 = (r+a)^2 and the line labeled “sight line”, which is has the equation y=x*c/d. Combining these equations to solve for x yields a quadratic equation, which we can solve with Wolfram Alpha:
and with the real numbers:
Which gives x = 212, meaning that the bottom of the contrail is around 200 miles away. So if the front of the contrail (the actual aircraft) is somewhere above and behind catalina, then that means the contrail is over 100 miles long. At 500 mph, that means it could have formed in 12-15 minutes, which seems consistent with the descriptions in the discussion above. (feel free to play around with the numbers there to see the affect of various assumptions)
Full post here: Jet contrails from some angles look like missile trails