9 November 2010

The ‘Mystery Missile’ was an Airplane Contrail

Posted by Ryan

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a missile?! No, it's a plane.

So, by now you have probably heard the breathless reports of an unidentified missile launched over the pacific off the coast of Los Angeles. This story has spread like wildfire through today’s news cycle, especially once former secretary of defense Robert Ellsworth started saying things like “It could be a test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile from a submarine”. Some stories contacted the Pentagon, which said that the apparent missile was “unexplained” which of course threw all the news networks into a frenzy.

Folks, what we have here is a failure to think critically. Or at all. I know it’s much more fun to just point at the sky and grunt and screech like startled apes, but honestly, we should be better than that.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the “mystery missile” was an airplane contrail. How many times have you looked up at a clear sky and seen a long narrow plume of vapor? There’s enough air traffic these days that it’s rare not to see one on a clear day. Ok, so how many times, upon seeing a contrail, do you immediately jump to the conclusion that you’re witnessing a dramatic show of force involving the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile? If you’re rational, which I assume you are since you’re reading this blog, then you don’t. You recognize a contrail for what it is and move on with your life.

Another example of a "missile-like" contrail, borrowed from Contrail Science.

And yet, somehow every major news network in the US failed this basic intelligence test. Was it because the contrail appeared to point upward from the horizon? Come on people. This isn’t that hard. The plane was coming almost straight toward the camera.

Thankfully, there are a few voices of reason out there. The site Contrail Science has an excellent and detailed post about the “contrail = missile” misconception, with a bunch of great pictures. IEEE Spectrum also has a good article about this non-newsworthy jet contrail.

The cynic in me says that “yes, obviously news networks knew this was a contrail, they just ran the missile story anyway because it’s sexy.” I’m not sure which is worse: not being able to do the tiny amount of critical thinking necessary to realize that this thing wasn’t a missile, or knowing it was actually a plane and freaking people out anyways. Either way, it’s a depressing reminder not to believe everything you see on the news.

Help! Help! Someone strapped four missiles to this plane!

Hat tip to Chase from The Last Bullpen on Earth for notifying me of this ‘mystery missile’ nonsense.