Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mystery surrounds "missile" launch

Editor's note: San Nicolas Island is probably where the shot came from. After all - SNI is the Navy's Area 51 - but you didn't hear that from me.

An interesting side note to this missile mystery was about the time this happened last night - my military band scanner went nuts. A few months ago I built a UHF military satellite antenna and have been listening to the Navy's FLTSATCOM system for months.

To continue ... last night while I was watching the tube - extremely loud encrypted data (I'm guessing it was data) came blaring out of the scanner making me jump. I locked out that channel but it jumped to the next - with the same blaring data and I locked that out and so on and so forth - until I finally grew annoyed and turned the radio down. Ten minutes later it ended and was quiet again. I couldn't help but wonder, "What was that about?" I guess now I know - sort of.

I just don't know if it was a test - or an accident - or triggered by tensions with North Korea. Maybe a warning shot?


UPDATE: mysterious missile launch from California or an optical illusion?

That's a question the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) is trying to resolve – and the blogosphere is hotly debating – after CBS News in Los Angeles aired what appeared to be a rocket launch from the Pacific Ocean just north of Santa Catalina Island, taken at sunset Nov. 8.

The "mystery missile" video, shot from a helicopter operated by local CBS affiliate KCBS, shows what appears to be an arcing plume of engine exhaust rising into the sky west of Los Angeles. Speculation about its source ranges from an airliner, whose contrail is giving the illusion of rocketry, or a missile itself.

About the only thing unambiguous about the event is that the go-to agencies either with jurisdiction over launches or with fingers poised over launch buttons – the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Defense Department – said, in effect, "It wasn't us."

Despite the official uncertainty behind the vapor trail, NORAD and the US Northern Command, which oversees the defense of the continental US, Alaska, and Hawaii, issued a statement aimed at reassuring the country that the event represents no threat.

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

Coastal southern California is no stranger to rocket launches. The US Air Force launches military and commercial rockets from Vandenberg Air Force base north of Santa Barbara; NASA occasionally launches sounding rockets from San Nicholas Island, some 80 miles west of Los Angeles. Nor is it stranger to spectacular sunsets and odd aircraft contrails.

At contrailscience.com, a Santa Monica-based private pilot who operates the cite has posted several sunset contrails that look similar to the vapor trail the CBS news crew recorded.

David Wright, co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass., notes that his initial speculation about what happened leaned toward the rocket-launch explanation, given NASA's launches from San Nicholas Island.

The CBS report suggested the plume was rising from some 35 miles offshore, but Dr. Wright adds that evening lighting and atmospheric moisture could have conspired to make a launch contrail look larger and closer than it actually is.

But after reviewing photos on contrailscience.com, he adds, he's reconsidering a jet contrail as an explanation – one he tended to dismiss early on.


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