Not a Missile Over California, It's Simply....

November 10, 2010; 5:36 PM ET
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Another contrail that looks like a missile. Shot by Jesse Ferrell in Wichita, KS

The mystery of the missile over Southern California can easily be explained as only an optical illusion from a passenger plane contrail.

What the news helicopter filmed was an optical illusion produced by the setting sun and the curvature of the Earth. A flight, most likely originating in Hawaii, was inbound to the west coast of the United States.

As the plane flew through a cold pocket of air aloft, it produced a fairly substantial contrail. As you can see in the video, the upper-level winds actually spread the contrail to the south, making it appear that the contrail was the exhaust from a rocket.

The angle of the video being shot from the helicopter made an optical illusion that the contrail was coming from the ground up when, in fact, the contrail you see was probably hundreds of miles long and going all the way to the horizon over the ocean.

In addition, our eyes play tricks on us by taking objects in the foreground and comparing that to the contrail, making us think the contrail is closer and coming from the ground. It is the same reason we think the moon is large when it is rising -- we compare the moon to objects in our view and our brain interprets the moon as actually being much bigger when, in fact, it is not any bigger than when it is above us.

The exhaust flames that appear in the closeup are actually the reflection of sunlight on the airplane. Because of the curvature of the Earth, the sun is still shinning well above us despite the sun being below the horizon. That's why you see high clouds late in the evening with the brilliant reds and oranges after sunset.

So was it a missile? No, just a typical airplane contrail.


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