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California 'mystery missile' ignites debate: Friend, foe, or faux?

News video showed a spectacular contrail Monday off California's coast, and debate over the 'mystery missile' blasted off. But even as government agencies said 'it wasn't us,' the US denied any threat.

By Staff writer / November 9, 2010

This video frame grab provided by KCBS/KCAL shows what could be a missile launched off the California coast, Monday, Nov. 8.



A mysterious missile launch from California or an optical illusion?

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That's a question the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) is trying to resolve – and the blogosphere is hotly debating – after CBS News in Los Angeles aired what appeared to be a rocket launch from the Pacific Ocean just north of Santa Catalina Island, taken at sunset Nov. 8.

The "mystery missile" video, shot from a helicopter operated by local CBS affiliate KCBS, shows what appears to be an arcing plume of engine exhaust rising into the sky west of Los Angeles. Speculation about its source ranges from an airliner, whose contrail is giving the illusion of rocketry, or a missile itself.

About the only thing unambiguous about the event is that the go-to agencies either with jurisdiction over launches or with fingers poised over launch buttons – the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Defense Department – said, in effect, "It wasn't us."

Despite the official uncertainty behind the vapor trail, NORAD and the US Northern Command, which oversees the defense of the continental US, Alaska, and Hawaii, issued a statement aimed at reassuring the country that the event represents no threat.

"We can confirm that there is no threat to our nation, and from all indications this was not a launch by a foreign military," they said. "We will provide more information as it becomes available."

Coastal southern California is no stranger to rocket launches. The US Air Force launches military and commercial rockets from Vandenberg Air Force base north of Santa Barbara; NASA occasionally launches sounding rockets from San Nicholas Island, some 80 miles west of Los Angeles. Nor is it stranger to spectacular sunsets and odd aircraft contrails.

At, a Santa Monica-based private pilot who operates the site has posted several sunset contrails that look similar to the vapor trail the CBS news crew recorded.

David Wright, co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass., notes that his initial speculation about what happened leaned toward the rocket-launch explanation, given NASA's launches from San Nicholas Island.


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