“Mystery missile” web sensation may have simply been a “contrail.” What does that mean?

A mysterious event in the sky outside of Los Angeles last week grabbed the attention of the media and conspiracy theorists. Was it a secret missile test? Even the Pentagon seemed flummoxed. This week, the military weighed in, dismissing it as the contrail of an ordinary jet.

Not to be confused with a coelacanth, the Contras, or any conspiracy-themed topic, a contrail is the benign conjoining of “condensation” and “trail.” Contrails are the visible byproduct of exhaust of jet engines, made of carbon dioxide and water vapor. In the cold air of high altitude, the hot exhaust condenses and freezes in the wake of an aircraft’s path. It is believed the contrail in L.A. looked unusual because of the angle of jet’s flight path and the angle of light from the setting sun on the vapor trail.

From L.A., the trail took on a shape that is similar to the contrail left by missiles. Experts agree that, while the trail had some resemblance to that of a missile, there is a broad lack of evidence supporting this claim, from seismic or other instruments.

Because of the secret nature of covert operations, the military can neither confirm nor deny claims made by individuals who believe they have special insight or a modicum of evidence of black ops. This silence is considered a tacit acknowledgement to some wild claims by conspiracy theorists. For example: say Area 51 to most people and they think of Roswell, aliens and cover ups. Conspiracies can certainly engage the imagination, but a dictionary enthusiast may ask, aren’t the vivid and unexpected definitions of the real world potent enough?