Missile launch leaves contrail visible for hundreds of miles

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An early-morning missile test in New Mexico left a white contrail that quickly turned into a corkscrew visible for hundreds of miles Thursday.

The unarmed Juno target missile launched at 6:55 a.m. from an old military depot in northwestern New Mexico and was aimed at White Sands Missile Range, some 215 miles away. Officials said a Patriot missile successfully intercepted it and it disintegrated in midair.

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White Sands officials said they received numerous reports of the contrail being spotted in the Phoenix area. Observers also took photos of the corkscrew-shaped cloud from Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, more than 850 miles away.

Test missile streaks across Southwest Thursday morning as seen from Albuquerque (Roberto E. Rosales / Journal)

Test missile streaks across Southwest Thursday morning as seen from Albuquerque (Roberto E. Rosales / Journal)

A similar launch in 2012 created a buzz when reports flooded in about a colorful contrail that was visible from southern Colorado west to Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
This time, officials shared information about the launch in advance with communities as far away as Palm Springs, California. Radio stations in Arizona also were broadcasting stories about what people could expect to see in the pre-dawn sky.

“Usually what happens is it’s the contrail that causes the commotion,” said White Sands spokeswoman Cammy Montoya, noting that many people call in asking if it’s a UFO.

The shape and color of the contrail is different each time. It depends on the conditions at the time of the launch. For example, the rising sun has to illuminate the twisting cloud-like formation in just the right way. The amount of crystallized water vapor in the atmosphere can affect the color.

White Sands officials said the airspace over Fort Wingate, the site of the launch, and the drop zone for the booster was restricted for several hours Thursday. The airspace over White Sands is already a restricted zone.
Since 1997, there have been 14 target missions from Fort Wingate to White Sands. The last one was in September 2012.


Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.

Test missile streaks across Southwest Thursday morning as seen from Albuquerque (Roberto E. Rosales / Journal)

Test missile streaks across Southwest Thursday morning as seen from Albuquerque (Roberto E. Rosales / Journal)


Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015
An early morning missile test over a remote part of northwestern New Mexico is expected to produce a contrail that will be visible across the Southwest today, and authorities say they’re preparing for a flood of phone calls and emails from curious onlookers.

his Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015 photo provided by White Sands Missile Range shows an exhaust plum from a missile launch over N.M. An early morning missile test in New Mexico left a white contrail that quickly turned into a corkscrew that was visible for hundreds of miles. The unarmed Juno target missile was launched at 6:55 a.m. MST from an old military depot in northwestern New Mexico. (Erin Dorrance/White Sands Missile Range via AP)

his Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015 photo provided by White Sands Missile Range shows an exhaust plum from a missile launch over N.M. An early morning missile test in New Mexico left a white contrail that quickly turned into a corkscrew that was visible for hundreds of miles. The unarmed Juno target missile was launched at 6:55 a.m. MST from an old military depot in northwestern New Mexico. (Erin Dorrance/White Sands Missile Range via AP)

The unarmed Juno target missile is scheduled to be launched between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. from an old military depot in western New Mexico. The destination is about 215 miles away on White Sands Missile Range.

On its way to White Sands, the missile will drop a booster into a safety zone on private and national forest land north of Datil. Roadblocks have been set up in the area.

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A similar launch in 2012 created a buzz when reports flooded in about a colorful contrail that was visible from southern Colorado to Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Las Vegas, Nev.

This time, officials are sharing information about the launch with communities as far away as Palm Springs, Calif.

It’s the contrail that causes the commotion.

“It’s hard to describe, but it’s very unusual, so that’s why we get the calls,” White Sands spokeswoman Cammy Montoya said Wednesday. “People want to know: What happened? Is it a UFO? What’s going on?”

How spectacular the show will be depends on the conditions at the time of the launch. For example, the rising sun has to illuminate the twisting, cloudlike formation in just the right way. Then the amount of crystallization of water vapor in the atmosphere is another factor that can affect color.

The contrail could last up to 45 minutes, but officials say that also depends on atmospheric conditions.

White Sands officials said the airspace over Fort Wingate, the site of the launch, and the drop zone for the booster will be restricted for several hours today. The airspace over White Sands is already a restricted zone.

Since 1997, there have been 14 target missions from Fort Wingate to White Sands. The last one was in September 2012.

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