Mystery Missile News Plus Join Me For A Jaunt On Mimas

A spectacular contrail stands straight above the horizon last October at sunrise. The plane had moved on out of the frame as the contrail expanded. Photo: Bob King

You’ve probably heard about the mystery missile seen off the coast of southern California Monday night. Apparently no missile launches were underway at the time, and no hits or damage were reported. It appears more likely the “missile” was an aircraft contrail caught in the last rays of sunlight. Contrails form from water vapor in jet exhaust condenses into a streak of cloud behind the plane. If you watch the video, you’ll agree it’s a dramatic one. I once saw a contrail that looked similar to a rocket launch. It was early morning and a transcontinental jet shot straight up from the eastern sky at sunrise. The trail looked perfectly vertical, but I knew the plane’s great distance, combined with its flight path directly toward me, created the illusion.  In reality, the contrail was horizontal and parallel to the Earth’s surface the whole while. The contrail of the “mystery missile” may have been created in similar fashion by a plane flying toward the observer rather than away, giving the appearance of moving up instead of to the side.

This may not be the end of the story however. One other possibility I’ve heard raised is that it could still be a missile – one fired from a Navy ship or submarine off the coast. What do you think? I think once someone can positively identify which plane flight left the contrail, we’ll finally get a definitive answer.

Gary Walker got a nice photo of the spot last night. The dark spot is the shadow of the moon Io; the pinhead-sized white spot is to its right. Credit: Gary Walker

Excitement is building among amateur astronomers about the possible return of the stripe that disappeared on Jupiter earlier this year. Here’s another photo of the planet taken last night that shows the small, white spot that recently appeared in the faint Southern Equatorial Belt that might presage the belt’s return to its more typical dark appearance. For now, the planet still appears with only one prominent dark belt – the North Equatorial Belt or NEB. It’s easily visible in even the smallest telescopes at 40x and higher. The white spot has been growing since first seen a day ago. I’ll report more as events unfold.

A new image of Saturn's moon Mimas taken by the Cassini probe from a distance of 64,000 miles on October 16. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

I love space photos that fire the imagination, which is why I had to share these two of Saturn’s diminutive moon Mimas (MY-mas). This asteroid-sized moon is 246 miles across and absolutely saturated with craters. The big one the right, named Herschel after William Herschel, discoverer of the planet Uranus, measures 80 miles across and takes up almost 1/3 of the moon’s surface. The wallop inflicted from the impact must have come close to shattering the satellite to bits. Mimas is composed of mostly water ice and just large enough to compress itself through its own self-gravity into a nearly spherical body. Objects much below Mimas’ size tend to be irregular in shape because they lack the mass to crush themselves into a ball.

A portion of Saturn's F-ring is silhouetted against Mimas, which hovers in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Even though Mimas is big enough to join the ranks of sphericity, its gravity is only .008 times as much as gravity’s pull here on Earth. Put into perspective, if you weigh 130 lbs. here, you’d only weigh 1 lb. on Mimas. That’s a serious weight loss program! Some day astronauts will walk the surface of this little moon and feel so light and free, they’ll set aside the science experiments a moment and jump for joy. I would.

3 Responses

  1. Mike

    To me the contrail must be from a missile. Look at the bright glow from the rocket exhaust fire. It is pointed AWAY from the setting sun so it is unlikely to be sunlight glinting off of a jet and the angle to the sun is wrong. Me thinks there is more to the story and officials are doing some “CYA” because of an “error”. There is the technology to backtrack this to the point of origin. There IS an answer. In my opinion, for them to say they “don’t know” is preposterous.

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