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

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    This video frame grab provided by KCBS/KCAL shows what could be a missile launched off the California coast, Monday, Nov. 8.
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A mysterious missile launch from California or an optical illusion?

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.

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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 contrailscience.com, 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.

The CBS report suggested the plume was rising from some 35 miles offshore, but Dr. Wright adds that evening lighting and atmospheric moisture could have conspired to make a launch contrail look larger and closer than it actually is.

But after reviewing photos on contrailscience.com, he adds, he's reconsidering a jet contrail as an explanation – one he tended to dismiss early on.

Others lean toward the rocket-launch explanation, which if true and not from a US source, would have serious national-security implications.

"It's not an aircraft contrail," says Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology, and international security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also in Cambridge, Mass. "That I'm confident of. It looks like a big missile, but who knows what a contrail looks like from long range."

It's hard to know for sure, he acknowledges. But the contrail had features reminiscent of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, similar to the US Navy's Trident II.

After reviewing the video, he noted twists to the contrail that could have been caused by wind. But, he adds, it also is consistent with a twisting maneuver that solid-fuel, long-range missiles perform to control their speed and range.

In the early days of solid-fuel motors, engineers built ports into the missile body near the nose. The ports could be opened on command to bleed off some of the hot gases that would have gone out the nozzle, thus controlling the rocket's velocity. But the ports also represented a weak spot in the missile's body, which led to missiles destroying themselves.

As guidance and navigation systems improved, missiles could be programmed to perform the cork-screw-like maneuvers to bleed their speed – so-called general energy-management maneuvers.

The contrail "has the spirals you would see in an advanced solid-rocket missile," he says.

If it was a submarine-launch missile, he dismisses the notion that a US launch was timed as a show of strength during President Obama's current trip to Asia. Countries there "have no early warning systems to see this thing," he says.

FAA spokesmen say nothing unusual showed up on air-traffic radar at the time the contrail was videotaped. But that could be an artifact of the contrail-generating object's speed and the relatively slow rotation rates the radar use. If an object was moving at rocket-like speeds at the distance reports indicate, it would have been a single blip on the screen at best, Dr. Postol says. Controllers tend to dismiss a single blip as noise, rather than a craft of some sort, which would generate repeated blips.

For fans of Occam's Razor, which posits that the explanation nearest correct is the one requiring the fewest assumptions, a jet contrail writ large by an optical illusion may well be the simplest explanation. But until the alternatives – an unannounced, unauthorized, or unfriendly "demonstration" launch – can be ruled out, the missile launch off California will continue mystify.

"There is no doubt that the North American Air Defense Command early-warning satellites would observe this" if it was a launch, Postol says.

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