Mystery Missile: this question can be answered.

Like many techie sorts interested in military matters, I was caught up in the great California missile plume mystery.  I first heard about it when a reported called with questions and she sent a link to a video.  A traffic helicopter, an often underappreciated source of strategic intelligence, working for a local news station, KCAL, filmed what appeared to be a trail from a rocket launched off the coast of Los Angeles.  And the pictures do look like a rocket trail.  If someone showed me the still photographs and told me they were of a rocket launch, I wouldn’t think to question it.  But based on the photo, I would guess it is at least an anti-aircraft missile, like the Standard, and that is a 3000 pound missile, so this is not some amateur hobbyists flying a model rocket.  The Navy swore it wasn’t one of theirs.  The Air Force, too, denied any rocket launch and, anyway, Vandenberg, which does launch rockets, is in another direction.  No foreign government with the technical capability to, say, get a freighter close and launch a rocket from the back as some sort of demonstration would be crazy enough to do such a thing and the only country crazy enough to do it, North Korea, doesn’t have the technical capability to get away with it.  If it were some sort of secret test, then why test it off the coast of a multi-million inhabitant city and not, say, off the coast of Antarctica?  (And Vandenberg launches secret payloads all the time.  The fact of the launches obviously can’t be kept secret but the payloads are, so why go to the trouble?)

So, with no one confessing to launching a rocket, what is the explanation?  The obvious alternative is a contrail from a large jet aircraft at typical cruising altitude, heading toward the camera.  Two rocket experts, David Wright and Ted Postol seem to come out in different positions on this.  Jeffrey Lewis cited a website devoted to jet contrails with lots of great pictures.  If a long horizontal band stretches off to the horizon, the eye will see it as a vertical band rising from the horizon and some of the contrail photos make clear that the streak in the picture could be a contrail.

I was excited to be invited onto ABC News because I assumed they had the original video, not the poor quality video available on the web, but they actually had a 20 second clip that was not as good as what I had seen already but I could watch it on a big screen.  The contrail seemed too fat at the tip to be an airplane contrail (if I watch multiengine jets overhead, even I, with so-so eyesight, can see two separate contrails that take a second to converge).  Toward the end of the video there was a glow that easily could have been a rocket exhaust plume but, if I could see it then, why not earlier?  So I guessed that must be sun glint off an airplane.  (I believe, but am not sure, that at the time the sun had set already for those on the surface but an aircraft at cruising altitude would still be in sun.)  All in all, it seems to be an airplane but if someone later claimed it had been a rocket, I certainly couldn’t prove them wrong based on the hazy, choppy video I got to see.

But the real mystery here, to me at least, is that there is any mystery.  Why hasn’t the television station released the whole video?  You would think, with all the attention from the press and their needling of the Pentagon, someone would try to go to the source.  The problem with “the” video is that it is not the video but a news clip containing the video and it is edited into what is effectively a series of still photographs.  If the object were a plane, then it would be at long distance, it would be traveling about 600 mph, and, moreover, heading in the direction of the observer.  All these factors would make the track across the image slow.  A rocket would be much closer and traveling transverse to the camera view at least two to three times the speed of an airplane.  All these factors would add up to make the track appear to move quickly across the image.  My guess is that watching the original unedited video for 10 seconds would resolve this “mystery.”  I hope the helicopter cameraman didn’t erase it.

3 Responses to “Mystery Missile: this question can be answered.”

  1. Skeptic November 10, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    They must be seeing a different video than I am … but, like you, I’d like to see a clear, unedited original. Until then – it looks like a missile to me, and this Notice to Mariners Report is extremely interesting evidence:
    http://164.214.12.45/MSISiteContent/StaticFiles/NAV_PUBS/UNTM/201045/NtM_45-2010.pdf

    Excerpt:

    “434/10(18).
    EASTERN NORTH PACIFIC.
    CALIFORNIA.
    MISSILES.
    1. INTERMITTENT MISSILE FIRING OPERATIONS 0001Z TO 2359Z
    DAILY MONDAY THRU SUNDAY IN THE NAVAL AIR WARFARE CENTER
    SEA RANGE.

  2. Dirty Missouri November 12, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    Sorry but that reads like a standard wepons test range warning. Besides its only like 4 miles for Oxnard, CA. Your about 40 miles off course….The trail looks to have a spiral too it. I reminds me of the old anti-satalite missiles fired from F-15s. The F-15 would go vertical for at altitude and launch a heavily modified SRAM or SRAM II. The missile could knock down low and medium orbit stuff. I dont think the weapon was ever fielded, only tested for a few shots in the Star Wars days of Reagan.

  3. Carl November 20, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    It seems to me it ahd to be different in order to cath any attention. People must be used to seeing contrails all the time in that part of the country. It’s a congested airspace at all altitudes, including military traffic and, as you point out, rocket launches. So, why did this contrail catch so much attention?

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