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Whose Missile Was Launched 35 Miles West of Los Angeles?

Pentagon says, I Dunno

3 min read

Update 3: Jim Oberg follows up on how an unusual contrail caused a media sensation.

Okay, time for some rabid speculation on the part of IEEE Spectrum readers.

There was a fascinating news story last night on CBS affiliate KCBS that showed video of what looked remarkably like a submarine ICBM or possibly a surface ship surface-to-air missile or even a commercial rocket from a sea-based platform being launched north of Catalina Island and about 35 miles west of Los Angeles around sunset.

According to the story:

"CBS station KFMB put in calls to the Navy and Air Force Monday night about the striking launch off the coast of Los Angeles, which was easily visible from the coast, but the military has said nothing about the launch."

A Navy spokesperson told KFMB that the missile wasn't one of theirs, and the Air Force said it wasn't one of theirs, either.

The Pentagon said it was "checking" the report, but did not know who launched the missile.

Update:  A Pentagon spokesperson who was asked this morning about the sighting was quoted by the Talk Radio News Service as saying: "The operative word is unexplainable."

I can't find an FAA warning to pilots in the area, either.

Update: If it was a test shot in the Pacific Missile Test Range, Point Magu, which some are speculating, then the test should have been announced by the US Navy and the Coast Guard ahead of time.

Update1: Jonathan McDowell who puts together Jonathan's Space Report, a newsletter on space launches, speculates:

"Launches of NASA Black Brant IX rockets from San Nicolas Island in California carrying MARTI [Missile Alternative Range Target Instrumentation] targets for the Airborne Laser testbed have been removed from public NASA schedules, but a launch seen by an LA helicopter news crew on Nov 9 (Nov 8 Pacific time) may be related to this program. The previous such launch, which was publicly acknowledged, was on Oct 21."

What is almost as amazing as the fact that a missile launch took place just off the West Coast of the US and no one seems to know who did it, is that this story is generating almost no buzz in the national press as of now.

In fact, it smells like a possible government investigation in the making to me.  An investigation might also explain what happened last New Year's Eve. As reported by the Orange County Register, there was another mysterious missile that looks very similar that was launched with no claims of ownership, and no major news reporting on it, either.

Update2: The latest view is that it - and the 31 December 2009 "launch" -   are just optical illusions caused by a contrail of an approaching aircraft. According to this AFP story that cites ContrailScience.com (some Spectrum commenters cite the source as well):

"a contrail streaming horizontally from the exhaust of an approaching aircraft can look like a vertical missile shot if the end of the plume is hidden by the curvature of the earth."

I must admit, the evidence looks pretty convincing.  And given that no other major country is too excited about it, the case looks pretty much closed.

Update3: Early this evening EST a story in the LA Times states that:

"A Pentagon official said that an examination of radar data, satellite imagery and other sophisticated monitoring technology by multiple U.S. government agencies has turned up no conclusive evidence that a missile was fired in that vicinity and at that time.

"Even U.S. agencies that monitor launches of rockets by private individuals or companies had no information of a launch, he said."

"The best we can tell, it was probably caused by an aircraft," the official said."

If you disagree, feel free to continue to guess away:

Who owns the missile, and why was it fired?

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