Did a meteor plunge into the ocean near Perth? I'm thinking no.

By Phil Plait | July 2, 2012 10:30 am

I’ve been getting some emails and tweets alerting me to photos that purport to show the debris trail of a meteor after it apparently plunged into the ocean off the coast of Perth, Australia. After looking at the pictures, I’m pretty sure this is not a meteor, but an airplane contrail.

First, the picture, from the Australian news site News.com.au:

It’s a lovely photo! It shows the ocean off to the west of Perth, a blue sky, and what appears to be some sort of cloud-like vapor or debris trail. That’s probably not just an average cloud: it’s very linear, and shows signs of being sheared apart by winds. Cirrus clouds can look like this, but generally aren’t all alone in a blue sky. There are other types of linear clouds (like alto- and cirrocumulus) but those tend to appear in parallel bands.

The cloud is also relatively low above the Earth’s surface. In another photo from news.com.au, you can see the faint shadow of the cloud on the sky – I have inset that here, with the brightness and contrast stretched. The arrows mark the shadow (the bright blobs are most likely internal reflections in the camera, and the dark spot a piece of dust or something like that on the lens). The picture was taken at sunset, so the Sun was low. The shadow of the trail is being cast on haze and other stuff floating in the air above the cloud. Clearly, the trail isn’t all that high above the Earth’s surface.

This doesn’t mean it’s not from a meteor, necessarily. A big rock plunging into the ocean might leave a trail (technically called a "train") like this. But I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing. A big rock burning up in the atmosphere would’ve been really conspicuous, and seen by lots of people – especially at sunset near a major city like Perth. I’d also expect the train to be much longer than this; big meteors start burning up about 100 kilometers (60 miles) over the Earth, so the train would arc across more of the sky.

And no one saw that? Also, there are no confirmations from anywhere else of an impact or even observations of this. So my skeptic sense is tingling hard.

Also? It just really really looks like a typical airplane contrail! We see these all the time. When a plane flies over the horizon it can leave a contrail looking exactly like this, with perspective making it look like it’s diving down into the ocean. It gets lit by the setting Sun, so it glows red, orange, or yellow. Thinking parsimoniously – using Occam’s razor and looking at probabilities here – what’s more likely: an airplane flying away from a big city, or a big rock burning up in our atmosphere that almost no one saw?

Furthermore, contrails have been mistaken for meteors and even missile launches in the past!

And I’ll save the best for last: as I was wrapping up writing this post I did a Google search to see if anything new popped up, and sure enough there’s an article with a witness saying he saw this cloud for a while before sunset, and it was clearly a contrail from an airplane. I don’t put a lot of stock in eyewitness testimony in general, but that fits everything else we know.

So it seems far, far more likely to me that what we’re seeing here is a contrail from an airplane being lit up in a lovely and spectacular way by the setting Sun, and not the smoky path of a bit of cosmic debris meeting its fate Down Under. That may not be as exciting, but it does help in a way: once you understand better what you’re seeing in the sky (or in this case, not seeing), then you’ll be in a better position to make a judgement if you do see something truly unusual. They may be rare, but spectacular meteors do sometimes flash across the sky. If you’re fortunate enough to ever see one, wouldn’t you rather be sure that’s what you’re seeing?


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MORE ABOUT: contrail, meteor, Perth

Comments (32)

  1. MacRat

    It’s a dragon.

    Dragon riders of Perth.

  2. Bryce Alexander

    A couple more points, meteor and rocket trails tend to get twisted by changing winds at different altitudes, while this is being spread out horizontally by consistent winds of the same altitude. Take a look at http://goo.gl/YpCJH for an example of a rocket trail shortly after launch. Also the Cirrus clouds elsewhere in the first picture are whiter, this tends to indicate that they are higher than the orange from the filtered sunlight. This contrail is at a constant altitude.

  3. Chip

    Though it looks like its going down into the ocean, the trail is very probably at a consistent altitude as the plane flew away, over the horizon.

  4. Mejilan

    Be it airplane’s contrail or meteor’s train… purty sure is purty. :)

  5. Ix

    “..with remnants of the phenomenon still visible in the sky this afternoon.” as it read in the news.

    Maybe it’s a mighty periodical meteor called EK420.

  6. Renee Marie Jones

    It sure looks like a contrail or a cloud to me. I honestly cannot see how anyone could think it was anything else. I also do not understand how anyone could be so sure it is headed into the ocean. It is way too far away to tell that.

    It is really cool, however, the way the light hits it and makes it glow. Very pretty.

  7. Ed Myers

    Looks more like a Chinese sub is now launching rockets at Australia! Since the US government successfully suppressed news of a rocket strike on California the Chinese have had to shift targets.

  8. Maria

    I’ll second the dragons notion.
    Dragons are always the best answer to these things.

  9. josh

    Is there a reason, I saw a pretty much the same clloud or trail, on the east coast, out to the ocean?

  10. Andrew Phillips

    I agree that this is a contrail. However, unlike many other parts of the world, it is quite rare to see them in Perth (due to relative dryness of air?). This may have confused a few people who are not used to seeing them.

    It’s been rather cold lately in Perth so this may have caused the contrail.

  11. Charles Boyer

    Piece of dust? Bah!

    Clearly, that black dot on the bottom photo is the underside of the alien spaceship sent by Xenu to help Tom Cruise keep his marriage together.

    Seriously, however, I thought that was a contrail too, based on other similar photos I have seen in the past when Dr. Plait wrote about them. Thanks for linking them and saving the search engine time for us!

  12. Brian113

    Bravo, MacRat. Bravo.

  13. TimO

    Remember the ‘rocket trail’ off L.A. a few years ago that turned out to be an aircraft contrail??

    Looks exactly the same….

  14. Phil, news.com.au is the crap news equivalent of Fox News over there, and is not representative of the typical Australian intellect. Oh wait, sadly, it is. :-(

    I fear for my race.

  15. Wayne Robinson

    I live in Perth. I didn’t see this ‘event’ on Friday night, but the next day, when I was coming home from the football at much the same time, I looked down Wellington Street eastwards from the central train station, and saw a similar pattern of clouds, but this time three small elongated clouds arranged in a line towards the horizon.

    Very striking, but only because of the colours, pink against a dark blue sky.

    If it was a ontrail, then it’s from a scheduled plane leaving Perth at the same time every day. Possible, but I doubt it. I think it’s just a random arrangement of clouds giving an apparent pattern of little significance, except for the physics that produced them.

    I rarely see contrails in Perth. I’ve always assumed that it’s because there are so few planes around Perth flying at the altitude contrails are formed. Planes are either landing or taking off. There are virtually none flying over Perth at the right altitude.

    I love looking at cirrus clouds. They have the most fascinating patterns with repeated linear arrangements often.

  16. Wzrd1

    It’s one of two things. I’ve witnessed both.
    Either it’s a contrail from an aircraft, of which I’ve personally viewed thousands over the decades.
    Or…
    It’s a contrail from a dragon and its rider during flaming practice. From the density of the trail, the rider is quite practice in feeding firestone to maintain consistent flame.
    I’ve only witnessed that on Pern. ;)

    So, I’ll go with an aircraft contrail. I’ve saw many over the decades that look nearly exactly like that. Both in my military career and at home, where I live a mile and a half from a major international airport.
    But, quite a nice sight.

  17. selina

    Andrew ,

    we don’t often see contrails in Perth because few flight paths at higher altitudes cross over Perth.
    Yes, weather conditions are important – but Perth is remote – and the only air traffic consists of planes at low altitudes either landing or taking off at the airport. Plenty of contrails to be seen in the Midwest – NW Cape – Pilbara, because these areas are under flight paths.

    We do have contrails in Perth – and you can time these to your watch. Some people actually are contrail spotters.

    http://www.perthobservatory.wa.gov.au/information/contrail.html
    http://www.lifeonperth.com/contrailsoverperth.htm

  18. marxz

    AS stated above Perth has very few high altitude overflights so contrails are a _very_ rare sight in our skies.

    There is however at least one a Sydney to Johannesburg direct flight SA7700 (?) which crosses over Perth airspace at roughly this time of evening and often generates a contrail cloud

  19. Paul

    Contrails are somewhat common over Perth during different times of the year as flights from Sydney or Melbourne in the east sometimes fly over us or close to it on their way to or from the Middle East. These tracks vary through the year as the high altitude winds shift with aircraft maximising tail winds or minimising head winds as the case may be, sometimes I’ll see several over a month and then nothing for a while. They do look like contrails of a jet heading in a roughly west to north westerly direction, that would have been my first impression if I witnessed it last Friday.

  20. Oh my… the chemitrail crazies are going to go ape over that.

  21. Wayne Robinson

    Thank Gawd no one saw my ‘howler’. I actually wrote ‘looking eastwards’ towards the sunset. Another senior moment. Reminds of the time in one of the ‘City Slickers’ films, and several of the characters were lost, and they were trying to determine compass directions. One suggested that north was uphill, because ‘up’ is ‘north’ on maps. Another suggestion was that the Sun sets in the East (because the Sun sets in the West when they’re in the eastern states, but since they’re out west, it must therefore set in the East…)

  22. Ross Marsden

    Phil says early in the article, “Clearly, the trail isn’t all that high above the Earth’s surface.” but finally concludes that the trail is a contrail which must therefore be 30,000 feet or even higher.
    Actually, there is nothing in the appearance of the trail or by the existence of a shadow that confines the trail to near to the Earth’s surface.
    Phil is correct – it is an aircraft contrail several hundred miles away, lit by the setting sun.

  23. Redtail

    I saw this happening. I couldn’t see any aircraft as the trail had just hit the horizon. Immediately assumed it was a contrail and marvelled at its beauty.
    The very next morning I was heading east at sunrise, and saw the exact same effect over the scarp. Very definitely a contrail that time. I could clearly see the plane generating it.

  24. William

    And the tower operators who claimed that there was nothing on their scopes in the area at that time are all conspiracy theorists, too, eh? Besides, who cares if it was a meteor? The things come down all the time, and do, in fact, leave trails like this… but this one, if that’s what it is, hit a lonely patch of ocean. Why does anyone even care?

  25. BCL1

    When I first saw the picture and read that it was from a meteorite, my first thought was, “Can a meteorite leave a con-trail?”

  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    Did a meteor plunge into the ocean near Perth? I’m thinking no.

    Well, I’m thinking yes – but probably not on this particular occassion! I’m guessing that over the millennia quite a few meteorites would probably have landed in the oceans off Perth, right? ;-)

    *****

    “The silt in a house’s eaves probably contains a minute amount of interplanetary material.”
    – Page 70, ‘The Universe and Beyond’, Terence Dickinson, Camden House, 1992.

  27. Daniel

    How about checking the airline schedules for a flight going over the area in question at that time? ;-) But then, maybe there are too many to obtain a conclusive result. Cool photo and story!

  28. Blooper

    That’s no contrail… that’s a chemtrail. ;)

  29. It was a contrail. I was at the beach on a photography outing on Saturday evening, and saw the contrail before the sunset. At the time, it looked just like a normal contrail – white and unassuming.
    Once the sun set, the contrail was lit up fantastically, and turned bright orange/yellow. I think it’s the colours that led many people to think it was the fiery tail of a meteor.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of the cloud before sunset, when it looked like a “normal” contrail. I have some more photos of the cloud on my blog:
    http://martybugs.net/blog/blog.cgi/photowalks/Meteor-Off-WA-Coast.html

  30. The Love of Lindsay

    Come on you idiots…it’s obviously a dragon…gezuz!

  31. Even if it was a meteor, it was a bus-sized one, yes? I understand this is the standard measuring unit for asteroid these days. Probably they said the same about the one that wiped the dinosaurs out; at that time buses had to carry dinos, see?

  32. Greetings and Salutations;
    One thing that has not been mentioned so far is that all the meteors I have seen, and the couple of films of large, atmosphere-skimming meteors I have watched have never left a trail like this. The trails I have seen have been much smaller, so, I suspect anything from space big enough to leave a trail like the pictured one would have made quite an impact and noise when it hit either the ground or the really thick atmosphere close to the ground.
    I have to say, though, that I agree that it is quite a striking picture.
    pleasant dreams
    dave mundt

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