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?
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?
"Senator Bob" Smith was a US Senator of New Hampshire for 13 years, a NH Congressman for six years before that, and served on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee for two years.
Which means exactly nothing when it comes to not buying into ridiculous conspiracy theories.
For evidence of this, I direct you to an OpEd "Senator Bob" wrote for the Orwellianly-named Accuracy in Media website where he claims that we still don’t have answers about a supposed missile launch off the coast of LA last year. It has all the usual hallmarks of a breathless conspiracy theory: a total of 16 rhetorical questions most of which have nothing to do with the actual topic, accusations of coverup at the highest levels, an off-handed mention that Obama might not be an American citizen (seriously), and a lot of self-aggrandizement.
All this over a contrail?
Yup. The deal is, last November a news helicopter pilot got some pictures of an airplane contrail over LA, and people — especially the media — went nuts covering it, speculating it was a secret missile launch. However, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear it was just a contrail, and in fact was clear to reality-based folks pretty much from the start. Of course, the media mistake Jupiter and Venus for UFOs, so I wouldn’t trust them very far.
But "Senator Bob" was an actual Senator! And he says stuff like this:
The truth is this. I do not know the truth, but I do bring my own credibility to this subject…
Senator, I think you misspelled "credulity". But at least he didn’t claim it was a chemtrail. Maybe that’s next week’s OpEd.
Anyway, the point here is that credentials mean nothing when out of context — his serving on the Armed Services Committee is meaningless when it comes to image analysis, for example — and not to belabor the obvious, but politicians are not always the best source of information on a topic. Or a lot of topics.
Just a quick note about that whole silly missile/contrail non-troversy that popped up last week: the website Contrail Science has a pretty good and quite lengthy writeup of the affair, complete with pretty convincing diagrams showing this was just an airplane. Interestingly, the author of that site concludes it was a different airline flight than the one I mentioned in my post the other day, but the bottom line is that this was certainly an airplane and not anything sinister.
I’ve talked about this before, both on the blog and at public lectures: the Internet is a two-edged sword when it comes to nonsense. It allows the spread of misinformation to be so rapid that there’s hardly a chance of getting corrections noticed before millions are infected… but it does make the inoculating knowledge easier to get out there as well.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before — remember the Texas fireball people thought was debris from two satellites that collided? — and we’ll see it again. We in the reality-based community must be vigilant to make sure the correct information gets out there. We can’t prevent misinformation from getting out, and we can’t even really stop it once it hits the street. But we can minimize it, and make sure there are repositories of knowledge to which we can refer others.
Tip o’ the tin foil beanie to Dan Durda.