A mysterious smoke plume that looked like a missile firing off the California coast on Monday may have been an aircraft, U.S. military officials said late Tuesday.
The vapor trail captured on videotape, however, has stumped U.S. military and intelligence agencies, who have not ruled out a missile launch. The video shows what appears to be a flame at the top of the ascending plume, lending credence to the missile-launch theory.
The event triggered widespread speculation in government circles and on the Internet that the plume was an errant U.S. military missile fired from a ship, submarine or aircraft, or even a Chinese submarine-launched ballistic-missile test
“While there is nothing at this time that leads the Department of Defense to believe this is a missile launch, the department and other US government agencies with expertise in aviation and space continue to look into the condensation trail seen and reported off the coast of Southern California on Monday evening,” said Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan.
Col. Lapan said all Pentagon agencies with rocket and missile programs reported no launches, scheduled or inadvertent, during the time period in the area of the reported contrail.
Additionally, the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado did not detect any foreign military missile launch off the California coast and concluded there was no threat, he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration also had no radar signals of any fast-moving unidentified targets from the area west of Los Angeles.
Pilots in the area at the time did not report any unusual sightings, Col. Lapan said.
Northern Command and the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) are configured to detect missile launches coming in the direction of the United States and detected no such launches, military sources said.
Additionally, a foreign submarine-launched missile also has been ruled out because there are no indications that foreign submarines, which are tracked closely by the Navy, were in the area.
Among the other possibilities is that the plume was the result of a top-secret, or “unacknowledged,” intelligence or military program that conducted a test flight or missile firing.
The Federal Aviation Administration had some indications that there were commercial or private jets in the area of the smoke plume, which has led to early conclusions the event was a jet contrail.
A U.S. defense official confirmed that military and intelligence agencies think the plume captured in a video was made by an aircraft that appeared to be flying straight up. The contrail is created when hot jet-exhaust gas condenses in cold air and creates a cloudlike trail.
Early assessments were based on the relatively slow speed of the object and movement within the plume’s path.
A jet contrail photographed near Los Angeles on Dec. 31 looked very similar to the plume in the videotape on Monday, the official said.
A traffic helicopter in Los Angeles first captured video of the suspected missile launch around sunset Monday, some 35 miles off the coast of Los Angeles and north of Catalina Island.
The Navy’s base in San Diego is located south of the sighting, and naval warships routinely conduct exercises in the area, including occasional missile firings.
Vandenberg Air Force Base, located north of Los Angeles, is also home to missile defense interceptors, and the base on Friday also launched a Delta II rocket with a communications satellite on board, but did not launch any rockets around the time the plume was spotted.
A Missile Defense Agency official said no flight tests of its interceptors were carried out around the time the plume was seen.
Col. Lapan said “we are also checking with other departments [and] agencies of the U.S. [government]” to determine if the test was part of a secret program.