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  • Missile From Nowhere
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 5:22 PM on Nov 09, 2010

    In what was probably a welcome change from reporting Beemer-on-Bentley fender-benders and arugula-fueled sharings of road-related anger, a California traffic helicopter picked up imagery of a spectacular rocket liftoff in the sunset Pacific sky Monday.


    blog post photo

    Sky News

    The only minor snag is that nobody appears to know who launched it, or (more likely) those who do are not telling anyone. Imagery showed the launch apparently headed in a northward direction, with estimates showing that the launch point was 35 miles off the coast and northwest of Catalina Island.

    Update:  Could the Navy's San Nicolas Island site be the launch location?  Public affairs at the Navy's Point Mugu test center, which controls the site, deflects all inquiries to the Pentagon, and San Nicolas is not associated with anything larger than a Tomahawk or a Vandal target.

    Both the USAF and Navy have said that they were not involved in the incident. The normal warnings to mariners and aviators that precede any launch on this scale were absent. NORAD and Northcom apparently told Fox News that they were aware of the launch, and "a senior defense official" reportedly told the network that "there was no threat to the homeland".

    The missile plume and the fact that the exhaust is visible point to a much larger vehicle than any known ship-launched missile. It is unclear how the range was estimated, and available images - showing the plume disappearing into haze - don't rule out an air launch. Another missing part of the story:  where did it land? And if it was part of a classified program, it's been thoroughly compromised.

    Update: 1411 Eastern:  Space observer Jonathan McDowell of Harvard suggests that the trail could be that of a conventional aircraft seen from an unusual angle. I have my doubts due to the trail's tapered shape, with a dense and billowing lower end, and the characteristic wiggling as the trail passes through different windspeed bands at different heights.

    Update: 1446 Eastern:  NORAD statement:
    "NORAD and USNORTHCOM are aware of the unexplained contrail reported off the coast of Southern California yesterday evening. At this time, we are unable to provide specific details, but we are working to determine the exact nature of this event. We can confirm that there is no threat to our nation, and from all indications this was not a launch by a foreign military. We will provide more information as it becomes available." Note that nothing in this statement says that it was not a US government launch - it says that NORAD is "unable to provide details", not that it does not have them.

    We will update as the story evolves.

    Tags: ar99, missile launch, California

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