Wow! Rare rainbow contrails caught on camera (photos)

rainbow contrails behind an airplane in front of a blue sky.
A series of stunning rainbow contrails were captured by amateur photographer Soumyadeep Mukherjee over Kolkata, India. (Image credit: Soumyadeep Mukherjee)

A series of stunning rainbow contrails were captured by amateur photographer Soumyadeep Mukherjee, from Kolkata, India. 

Contrails are a type of ice cloud produced when water vapor generated from the airplane's engines condenses and freezes around dust particles or with the water vapor already present in the air, according to NASA.

Rainbow contrails are produced when the frozen water droplets diffract sunlight in the same direction. According to Contrail Science, they are known as aerodynamic contrails and are formed when air pressure and temperature over the wings drop, causing the water vapor to freeze into different-sized droplets. When backlit by the sun, these frozen water droplets refract the light at different wavelengths, appearing as a rainbow to the observer. 

It's all about being in the right place at the right time. 

Mukherjee had originally set out to photograph the International Space Station transiting the sun, but clouds soon put a stop to that. He then turned his sights to an emerging sundog — a concentrated patch of sunlight occasionally seen to the right, left, or both sides of the sun — with a low-magnification zoom when he saw an airplane in the field of view.

"Nature never disappoints," Mukherjee told Space.com in an email.  

Sundog (left) and iridescent contrail (right) captured from Kolkata, India, 5:30 p.m. local time.   (Image credit: Soumyadeep Mukherjee)
Equipment used:

Post-processing: Photoshop

Equipment: Nikon D5600, Sigma 150-600c, Leofoto tripod

Location: Kolkata, India

Exif: f/9, 1/1600s, ISO 250, 600mm 

"I quickly zoomed my lens at 600mm and was very surprised to see some colours on the contrail." Mukherjee said.

"I couldn't believe that I captured it", Mukherjee continued. "The colours were faint and not visible to the naked eye. Had I not zoomed in with my camera, I would have missed it completely."

[insert image of the 7 contrails]
Caption: A collage of 7 individual images captured over a period of 40 seconds showing some changes in the iridescent colors and also in the contrail shape.

Thrilled with his efforts from July 19, Mukherjee set his sights on the sky once again on July 24, and photographed more rainbow contrails in exquisite detail. 

If you want to up your photography game and are not sure where to start, our guides on the best beginner cameras and best cameras for photos and videos can help. 

Editor's note: If you snap a beautiful photo and would like to share it with Space.com's readers, send your photos(s), comments, your name and location to spacephotos@space.com.  

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Daisy Dobrijevic
Senior Reference Writer

Daisy Dobrijevic joined Space.com in February 2022 having previously worked for our sister publication All About Space magazine as a staff writer. Before joining us, Daisy completed an editorial internship with the BBC Sky at Night Magazine and worked at the National Space Centre in Leicester, U.K., where she enjoyed communicating space science to the public. In 2021, Daisy completed a PhD in plant physiology and also holds a Master's in Environmental Science, she is currently based in Nottingham, U.K.

  • SpaceManTom
    Wow It’s Amazing to See those White Lines now with Rainbows. I love to watch the contrail clouds falling due to gravity or even spread out to make a Beautiful Silver Sky. We need more blocking of the sun, it’s too hot.
    Reply
  • ARTGLICK
    No doubt some numb nut is going to seize upon these photos and claim they're proof of that idiotic conspiracy theory about "chemtrails". Just wait.
    Reply