Internet Struggles to Explain California's Mystery Missile

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On Monday night, a strange thing happened. With no warning, an object that appeared to be a large missile launched near the southern coast of California. As it soared into the sky, a local news helicopter caught it on camera. Seeking to identify the mysterious object, reporters reached out to the Navy, Air Force and the North American Aerospace Defense Command: none have any idea what happened.

The lack of concrete explanations from officials sources has spurred on a grand guessing game among reporters, bloggers and military analysts. Here's the best of what the Web has to offer:


  • Maybe the Military Accidentally Launched a Missile, speculates NBC's defense correspondent Jim Miklaszewski:

  • A Commercial Rocket?  Allahpundit at Hot Air is skeptical:
Given the size and location of the thing, though, wouldn’t we already have an idea of who the culprit was? Presumably there’s a short list of commercial entities capable of boosting a bird that big. And if it was fired from a land-based platform, surely someone had to have seen the launch preparations. So why the confusion today?
a Federal Aviation Administration official told NBC News that there were "no reports of unusual sightings" and that a review of radar replays "did not reveal a fast-moving object in that area."

That's in line with the observations of scientists interviewed by NBC News and msnbc.com, who said that for all the sensation the video created on the Internet, the contrail was consistent what you'd see behind a normal jetliner or other large aircraft if you happened to spot it at sunset from the unusual aerial angle of the TV helicopter — in other words, it was probably an optical illusion.

  • We're Trying to Scare the Chinese, suggests a source at KCBS News:

  • How Would That Make Any Sense? counters Doug Powers:  "Did that guy theorize that maybe Obama was trying to somehow intimidate Beijing while he was overseas? How? By scaring the crap out of Los Angeles?"
  • An Enemy Sub? Allahpundit at Hot Air fleshes out the idea:
If it did come from the water and it’s really not a U.S. operation, then presumably it’s from an enemy sub. Relations with China have been souring, and they’ve made their opposition to American naval influence in Asia increasingly clear. Maybe this was a message to The One while he’s in their backyard shoring up alliances that China’s navy is stronger than thought? Wouldn’t be the first time a Chinese ship has surprised the U.S. Navy with its stealth, and Chinese advances in missile tech have been in the news of late. I don’t buy this theory either, though: Firing a missile within 35 miles of L.A., where it’s sure to be seen by the public and thus designed to embarrass the U.S. military, would be provocative in the extreme. Why now, when Hu Jintao just finished making plans to visit the White House early next year?
  • Whatever It Is, It's Completely Inexcusable, writes Naval Analyst Raymond Pritchett at Information Dissemination:
When someone makes an unannounced launch what looks to be a ballistic missile 35 miles from the nations second largest city (at sea in international waters), and 18 hours later NORAD still doesn’t have any answers at all – that complete lack of information represents a credible threat to national security. If NORAD can’t answer the first and last question, then I believe it is time to question every single penny of ballistic missile defense funding in the defense budget. NORTHCOM needs to start talking about what they do know, rather than leaving the focus on what they don’t know.
  • It Was Probably a Jet, concludes Wired's well-sourced national security reporter Noah Shachtman:

This wouldn’t be the first time a plane was mistaken for a missile. On New Year’s Eve, an aircraft was photographed above San Clemente, California, looking eerily missile-esque. In December, 2008, there was a similar case of mistaken identity when a plane flew near the coastal town of Carmel.

“The short explanation is that we don’t see a lot of jet contrails head-on, especially from the vantage point of a helicopter. So, it looks like a missile to everyone else,” writes Danger Room alum (and New America Foundation analyst) Jeffrey Lewis. “But it probably isn’t.”

He adds, “That would explain why no one else in L.A. saw a missile launch other than the helicopter crew — or, rather, why everyone else from every other angle saw a typical jet contrail — and why [America's missile-warning system] didn’t light up like a Christmas Tree.”

  • Here Are 8 Explanations for the Launch, writes New York magazine's Dan Amira, his tongue placed firmly in cheek. We'll give you five:

• A dejected Meg Whitman decided to leave Earth behind after spending $141 million of her fortune on a losing gubernatorial run, and set off to live out the rest of her days hurtling through space aboard her personal spacecraft, alone.

• The launch was part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for NBC's The Event or some other show.

• The military launched the missile by accident, it decimated a small, sparsely inhabited island in the South Pacific, and now they're just too embarrassed to fess up.

• A traitorous general meant to destroy Los Angeles with the missile, but mistakenly aimed it in the wrong direction.

• The missile-launch system became self-aware, and this is the beginning of the machine takeover. All of our computers are about to turn on us, attacking us with weapons, shutting off traffic lights, and making debilitating changes to our fantasy-football lineups.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.