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Pentagon Can’t Explain ‘Missile’ Off California Coast

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An unidentified missile flies over Los Angeles Monday evening. (CBS)

An unidentified missile flies over Los Angeles Monday evening. (CBS)

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LOS ANGELES (CBS 5 / AP) — The Pentagon said Tuesday it did not know what created a vapor trail that crossed the skies off the Southern California coast and resembled a missile launch.

Pentagon officials were stumped by the event. They were trying to determine if a missile was launched Monday night and, if so, who might have fired it.

Spokesmen for the U.S. Navy, Air Force, and other military organizations said they were looking into the video shot by a CBS News helicopter in Los Angeles that showed an object shooting across the sky and leaving a large contrail, or vapor trail, over the Pacific Ocean.

While the vapor cloud captured on video resembled that created by a rocket in flight, military officials said they didn’t know of any launches in the area.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said that “all indications” are that the U.S. Department of Defense was not involved with the mystery object, and that the contrail might have been created by something flown by a private company.

Normally any missile test would require notification so that mariners and pilots could be warned or air space closed, but that may not have been done in this case, Lapan said.

“It does seem implausible, and that’s why at this point the operative term is ‘unexplained’,” he said. “Nobody within the Department of Defense that we’ve reached out to has been able to explain what this contrail is.”

Missile tests are common off the coast of Southern California. Launches are conducted from vessels and platforms on an ocean range west of Point Mugu.

One expert called it an optical illusion. “It’s an airplane that is heading toward the camera and the contrail is illuminated by the setting sun,” said John Pike, director of the U.S.-based security analyst group Global Security.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, issued a statement jointly with the U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, saying that the contrail was not the result of a foreign military launching a missile. It provided no further details.

“We can confirm that there is no threat to our nation, and from all indications this was not a launch by a foreign military,” the statement said. “We will provide more information as it becomes available.”

NORTHCOM is the U.S. defense command and NORAD is a U.S.-Canadian organization charged with protecting North America from the threat of missiles or hostile aircraft.

Pike said the object could not have been a rocket because it appeared to alter its course.

“At one place (in the video) you can see it has changed course — rockets don’t do that,” he said.

Pike added that he didn’t understand why the military had not recognized the contrail of an aircraft. “The Air Force must understand how contrails are formed,” he explained. “Why they can’t get some major out to belabor the obvious, I don’t know.”

(Copyright 2010 by CBS Broadcasting Inc. and The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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