Missile Launch or Optical Illusion?

November 9, 2010
David Wright
Former contributor

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the “mystery missile launch” that seemed to take place off LA last night. A news helicopter filmed what appeared to be the contrail of a missile lifting off from the ocean some tens of miles west of LA and heading (fortunately) away from the U.S.

I’ve looked into this a little, and there seem to be are a few straightforward possibilities, which are hard to decide between given the available information:

(1) The launch of a missile from a U.S. submarine off the coast of LA. The Pentagon apparently says it didn’t do this.

(2) The launch of a target missile used for missile defense testing from an island off LA. The Missile Defense Agency apparently says it didn’t do this.

(3) The launch of a sounding rocket by NASA off Nicolas Island, 80 miles southwest of LA. NASA apparently says it didn’t do this.

(4) The launch of a commercial rocket off a floating platform. No one has said they did this, and the FAA says no one notified it of a pending launch, as is required of commercial launches.

(5) An optical illusion that made an aircraft contrail look like a missile contrail. Atmospheric conditions and dramatic lighting at dusk could have contributed to this illusion.

If you believe the reports from the Pentagon, NASA, and the FAA, then (5) starts to look more likely. But new information may help sort things out, or open up new possibilities.

It’s worth noting that something similar was seen last New Year’s Eve and was apparently never explained.

Thanks, as usual, to Jonathan McDowell’s Space Report for insights into these possibilities.