Mystery missile could be jet contrail

This video frame grab provided by KCBS/KCAL shows what could be a missile launched off the California coast, Monday, Nov. 8, 2010.

The U.S. Defence Department said Tuesday it was trying to determine if a missile was launched Monday off the coast of Southern California and, if so, who might have fired it.

Video shot Monday evening by the KCBS traffic chopper shows what looks like a large projectile, trailing a long plume of smoke, headed out toward the Pacific Ocean. It was reportedly spotted more than 50 kilometres off the California coast.

“Nobody within the Department of Defence that we’ve reached out to has been able to explain what this contrail is, where it came from,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said. “So far, we’ve come up empty with any explanation.”

While the vapour cloud captured on video resembled that created by a rocket in flight, military officials said they knew of no launches in the area.

Lapan said that “all indications” were that the Defence Department was not involved with the object.

Normally any missile test would require notification so that mariners and pilots could be warned or air space closed, but that may not have been done in this case, Lapan said.

The North American Aerospace Defence Command, or NORAD, issued a statement jointly with the U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, saying that the contrail was not the result of a foreign military launching a missile. It provided no further details.

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

One expert called it an optical illusion. “It’s an airplane that is heading toward the camera and the contrail is illuminated by the setting sun,” said John Pike, director of the U.S.-based security analyst group

Pike said the object could not have been a rocket because it appeared to alter its course.

“The local station chopped up the video and so it’s hard to watch it continuously,” Pike said. “But at one place you can see it has changed course; rockets don’t do that.”

Pike said he did not understand why the military had not recognized the contrail of an aircraft. “The Air Force must … understand how contrails are formed,” he said. “Why they can’t get some major out to belabour the obvious, I don’t know.”

Thus far, the mystery is being met in the U.S. news media with something approaching amusement.

Among the theories floating around: the missile was launched by accident, it was shot up by a private corporation, or it may have been constructed by rocketing amateurs.

It’s not yet clear if the missile was launched from the mainland or where it was headed.

On first blush, the story is somewhat reminiscent of the so-called Battle of Los Angeles, when land-based anti-aircraft artillery opened up on a nighttime “invasion” of the California metropolis.

Conspiracy theorists have suggested that the 1942 barrage was a secret effort to fight off an alien landing.

An Air Force investigation blamed it on hysteria following the attack on Pearl Harbor and a wayward weather balloon.

A big-budget movie based loosely on the incident is due out in 2011. Guess which version Hollywood picked.

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