Nuclear Weapons

Mystery Missile: this question can be answered.

11.10.10 | 4 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

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.