Mystery "missile launch" off California – solved?

UPDATE: Contrail Science writes:

Note to the media – since this was almost certainly Flight AWE808 (US Airways) from Hawaii to Phoenix, why not have a camera crew somewhere in the vicinity (does not need to be exact, or a chopper), at around 5-5:30 today, and if the weather is right you’ll see the same trail again.

Here’s the flight path below for 11/8/10. If anybody gets any new photos today, leave a comment and I’ll get them posted here.

My friend John Coleman (The Weather Channel founder, now at KUSI-TV San Diego)  explains it well in this video:

(starts at 45 seconds in)

Original post starts below:

There’s quite a buzz in the blogosphere about this video shot by a KCBS News helicopter. Explanations range from “Moonbeam Gov. Jerry Brown is headed home to visit relatives” to “missile launch kept secret by the Pentagon”.

Whatever it is, I’ve seen nothing like it. The speed doesn’t match a missile, but the trajectory and cloud pattern certainly seems to. Perhaps our readers can help figure this out. One alert reader “slp” posted in comments a link to a likely Occams Razor style explanation.

watch the video:

For people outside the USA that may not be able to see the first video, try this one:

For reference, here’s a certified missile shot from the Air Force Space Command:

I’m wondering if this isn’t some stunt plane practicing over the ocean (where the pilot doesn’t have to worry about buildings, power lines, towers, guy wires, FAA airspace permissions, etc.) with a smoke generator turned on? Watch this video from about 15-20 seconds in. That looks like what the “missile” video is. Add some red sunset lighting and you’ve got instant “slow moving missile”.

UPDATE: Thanks to alert reader “slp” who wrote: “Likely a contrail:”

Indeed it looks very much like this jet contrail seen off San Clemente, from Contrail Science Overflow, excerpted below:

Jet contrails from some angles look like missile trails

An interesting contrail cropped up off the coast of San Clemente, Orange County, California on December 31st 2009. The curious shape led some people to think it’s a missile launch, which it does kind of look like (all taken from San Clemente)

“Missile-like” contrail. Note this is the Dec 31st contrail, not the Nov 8th CBS one. That’s at the bottom of the post.

This view is from Corona del Mar, about 20 miles Northeast of San Clemente:

Here’s a similar photo (of a different contrail, obviously) on the same day at the other side of the country:

Not a missile launch.

Here’s the idea with math:

The idea that it’s a missile launch comes from three misconceptions. Firstly that the trail is vertical – it’s not, it’s a horizontal trail, at around 32,000 feet (about six miles). It’s the same as this:

This contrail is no more vertical than the road is, and nor are the power lines at 45 degrees. Everything is horizontal – it’s the just the angle you are viewing it from. All of these show horizontal contrails.

Secondly there’s the misconception of direction, that it’s flying away from the viewer, when it’s actually flying towards the viewer. This is because the “base” of the contrail seems wider than the tip. Perspective tells the brain that this mean the base is closer. But actually you can see the base has been greatly spread by the wind. Since it’s still so far away the effects of perspective are greatly diminished, meaning the actual width of the contrail is what is creating the illusion. Imagine is a plane with a 100 mile long spreading contrail were coming towards you; what would it look like? It would look exactly like this.

Thirdly there’s the idea that it goes all the way down to the ground. Now that might be true if the Earth was flat, but the Earth is round, and things go beneath the horizon eventually, no matter how high they are. A plane 200 miles away but five miles up is always below the horizon. If the horizon is raised (as it is here, with Catalina Island), then the distance is less. Here’s some math:

This diagram is not to scale, but the math is the same regardless. The solid curved line is the surface of the earth. The dot at the top is San Clemente. The little triangle is Catalina. “d” is the distance to Catalina (d=35 miles). “c” the amount of Catalina that is visible above the horizon (c=0.05 miles, really a bit more, but let’s be conservative). “a” is the altitude of the plane, (a = 6 miles). “r” is the radius of the earth (r=3963 miles).

The green wavy line is the contrail. Notice it’s at a fixed height above the surface of the earth, and is going directly towards the OC.

The point labeled (0,0) is the center of the earth. (0,0) means X=0, Y=0, where X is horizontal and Y is vertical. What we want to know is how far away the plane is, the value x. We do this with cartesian geometry, noting that the lowest visible point of the trail is at the intersection of the dotted line, which is a circle of radius (r+a), hence the equation x^2 + y^2 = (r+a)^2 and the line labeled “sight line”, which is has the equation y=x*c/d. Combining these equations to solve for x yields a quadratic equation, which we can solve with Wolfram Alpha:

intersection of (y=r+x*c/d) and (x^2+y^2 = (r+a)^2)

and with the real numbers:

intersection of (y=r+x*c/d) and (x^2+y^2 = (r+a)^2) where a=6 and d=35 and c=0.05 and r=3963

Which gives x = 212, meaning that the bottom of the contrail is around 200 miles away. So if the front of the contrail (the actual aircraft) is somewhere above and behind catalina, then that means the contrail is over 100 miles long. At 500 mph, that means it could have formed in 12-15 minutes, which seems consistent with the descriptions in the discussion above. (feel free to play around with the numbers there to see the affect of various assumptions)

Full post here: Jet contrails from some angles look like missile trails


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For the love of allah can you not post a video that is available outside of the US…please?
Im curious as to what you buggers in the states are looking at!

Michael Proctor

OK that is odd I get “This video isn’t available in your country” here in Australia? Cover up 😀
Sounds like a mystery for Scooby Doo and the gang

Murray Grainger

Sorry can’t help. Video no available for viewing in the UK.

That’s Al Gore, shooting off to Mercury to try to spread his Global Warming mantra!

Murray Grainger

Video *not* available. DOH!


This pretty much looks like the most likely culprit.
From what I have seen NORAD has not detected any missile launch in the area

Murray Grainger

Visit to see the video in the UK


CBS seem to be letting foreigners see this (the video player launches a second after the page is loaded). The commentary and speculation seem a little excessive.

Green Sand

Got it in the UK by:-

Darren Parker

“Hey California Is that a Rocket in your Sky or are you just happy to see me” – Al Gore

David Y

To slow for a missile–the spreading of the contrail toward the bottom wouldn’t be that great in such a short time with a missile launched from the water out there–plus the ‘base’ is illuminated, making me think that section of contrail is higher than one would initially think. Sunset over the ocean can play all sorts of tricks. Wouldn’t be surprised if it was a high flying (over 35Kft) aircraft coming in from the Pacific. The trajectory would look like it was going up, when in fact it was holding altitude.

Whatever it was, it was caused by climate change.

Stephen Brown

The speed and trajectory of the “object” seen on the BBC clip (all other clips being unavailable on You-tube) would suggest that an exuberant pilot was really having fun. The lighting at that time simply made things equally exciting for land-based viewers.
Wish I’d seen it myself!


Fox News also saying jet contrail/angle scenario…
Unusual set of circumstances for this to be observed off a large metropolis like LA for the first time (?) now though…


Those outside the US can try this clip:

As it is so (apparently) low to start with, this cannot be a commercial aircraft contrailing. And I am not sure that it is quite so ‘slow’ as you might think, as it is going directly away from us.
I would suggest something like Virgin Atlantic-Galactic rocket. Their solid-fuel engine is powered by rubber, and does indeed put out a great deal of smoke like this.
California is now the gold-rush state for private rocketeers, so there are many groups out there looking to be the first into space.

John Silver

I can’t see the video either, but I am sure it is a contrail just after sunset.
Short contrails, painted orange by the setting sun is often reported as UFOs.

Chris D.

Passenger jets don’t have glowing exhausts between their bodies and the contrail.
REPLY: But nice shiny aluminum jet bodies do catch and reflect the setting sun well, looking brighter than the sky when the sun is below the horizon.- Anthony


It appears to be a mysterious sign from heaven, or a writing in the clouds, that we need about 200 more Navy Ships to watch our coastal waters, esp. along our continental shelves where extremely quiet deisel subs from hostile nations could be cruising.


Clearly a sign of global climate disruption. ;->

mike g

First thought was contrail. Looks like rocket headed west. But, it looks like a contrail headed east, too.

Ed Waage

Yes, it is probably a contrail. With a missile launch, you get contrails going various directions at the higher altitudes due to varying wind directions at those altitudes.


Opening salvo in the long expected war between Atlantis V California.
I’ve got my £100 on the new governor having flippers and kissing fish. Long live Atlantis and death to my book maker.
(statistically it could just be true – ask Senator Mann)


A missile launch trail after sunset would get much brighter at the top as the missile ascends into full sunlight. I have seen many missile launches after sunset here in Orange County. This one got darker with time, consistent with an aircraft heading east after sunset.


Definitely a threat to national insecurity.


It’s a dolphin catching an early flight out. So long, and thanks for all the fish. 😉

This was not a contrail from a plane although the angles aren’t proof. Besides the fact that you can clearly see the engines glow, this was actually a solid fuel booster. The keys are the density of the smoke – not water vapor- and the width. Were it vapor, we would know because the ‘smoke’ would form well behind the rocket because the stuff would need to cool before condensing. Also, visual trail width cues can be taken from the size of the billowing lumps in the trail.
From my perspective, this thing went straight up through some very high clouds in a fully guided fashion. The amount of fuel to create such a large width smoke trail and brightness combined with the burn time, preclude anything but at least a major suborbital rocket. Norad cannot miss these sorts of events the radar is too sensitive, they were fully aware of it the moment it happened. The fact that it appeared to make some sorts of subtle looking yet likely severe course corrections means that a sophisticated guidance system.
My aero eng view is that someone is hiding the incline.
REPLY: I think the “glow” was sunlight reflecting off the fuselage. With the sun below the horizon, an object like an aluminum aircraft body would be a bright object because it is high enough to still catch the sun’s direct light. – Anthony


It’s Kirk being shot off in secret by Branson in the Enterprise. Look close, you can see him thru the porthole.

This was not a contrail from a plane although the angles aren’t proof. Besides the fact that you can clearly see the engines glow, this was actually a solid fuel booster. The keys are the density of the smoke – not water vapor- and the width. Were it vapor, we would know because the ‘smoke’ would form well behind the rocket because the stuff would need to cool before condensing. Also, visual trail width cues can be taken from the size of the billowing lumps in the trail.
From my perspective, this thing went straight up through some very high clouds in a fully guided fashion. The amount of fuel to create such a large width smoke trail and brightness combined with the burn time, preclude anything but at least a major suborbital rocket. Norad cannot miss these sorts of events the radar is too sensitive, they were fully aware of it the moment it happened. The fact that it appeared to make some sorts of subtle looking yet likely severe course corrections means that it had a sophisticated guidance system.
My aero eng view is that someone is hiding the incline.
REPLY: But how do you explain the lack of speed? Sorry, I’m skeptical 😉 – Anthony


Question: Why were none of the other jets flying that day producing such as wide and dense trails as the one shown?
And wouldn’t that trail be produced by a ship?
At least that’s what was said in blog entries this past year, one of them being about such trails in the sky over the gulf of Alaska, and another set just off California.
So what’s it to be? Ship trails or big, fat, thick, never dissipating contrails? Enquiring minds want to know!
In any case, normal contrails consist largely of water vapor, itself which forms several tens of feet behind the tail end of the jet itself, and which DO NOT spread over many thousands of feet of sky, whilst maintaining an opacity.
Rather, they rapidly thin out, and in doing so they become translucent and finally transparent. But they DO NOT spread out over THOUSANDS of feet of sky, whilst maintaining opacity.


It appears this object was launched from land

REPLY: Sorry, unconvincing. How can one determine the direction of travel from a single static photo? – Anthony


I have seen many launches in Florida, and what distinguishes them is the icy cloud where they penetrate into space. It doesn’t look like anything else you ever see. I don’t see anything like that here.


Having worked at WSMR and seen many missile launches over the years, that video was a rather large missile moving away from the observer. And yes, I have also seen missile launches from Vandengerg AFB, which would look simular, but this was too close to Los Angeles.
The video on YouTube is much better than the one being shown on Fox News, since you can see it in reference to another helicopter. Since LAX would have the radar track of the hellicopter which obtained the video, it should be rather easy to triangulate with the known surface objects visible and obtain a calibrated direction.
As meteorologists, you can also see how the exhaust plume was distorted by a wind shear, as it passed though the cloud layer.
Most interesting…


Much as I’d prefer a reality what that was a private company doing an unannounced moonshot, looks like a contrail to me too 🙁


As for the MODIS image:
Sorry, but the missile video was obtained at sunset and the terminator can not seen in the satellite image with the visible wavelengths. If it was sunset, then California was already dark.
Sorry, but wrong time of the day for that satellite.

Bruce Cobb

It changed course at one point, so definitely not a rocket.
Perhaps Moonbeam Brown bumped the steering wheel.


This will be part of the next argument… climate change will increase the impression of contrails looking like missile trails… it will make our lives miserable and always remind us that somebody somewhere is out to get us… please give us more money so we can study this new phenomenon… sent it all to Penn state University! We need to know if tree rings are affected by this.

The lack of speed comes from the weight of the missile. This was no minor event.
You cannot attribute a glowing light atop a smoke contrail to planes but what may do it for you is the altitude based shift in the smoke trail from some of the after still photos. You know about atmosphere flows in layers far more than I, so you should be able to identify them.
When the shuttle launched years ago, there are some neat photos of midsections shifting sideways from the main trail. Vertical motion is required to generate that effect.
I’m quite certain that this was a major launch of a solid rocket.


I’m still on the fence with this one. It could be either a smoke plume from an outgoing rocket or a contrail from an incoming aircraft. The lighting is more consistent with a contrail as mentioned earlier, as the older portion of the trail is more brightly lit and hence more likely at higher altitude or farther west. The “flames” could also be just a reflection off the aircraft.
However, some of the zoomed in video shots of the plume near the source show how rapidly the cloud is forming and expanding. Camera angles can make things look different but whatever the source of the plume was, it was really pumping it out. Big jets pump out a lot of water vapor but it just doesn’t look right. I guess if the aircraft was coming head-on, heavy, at a high power setting…. It just doesn’t look like water vapor to me. It looks like a smoke trail. Just tough to tell with the lighting. You’d think someone in an aircraft or boat would have a better view if it were a missile and would have told someone about it.
On the flip side, all the stories I’ve seen on the contrail theory point to the same website, where someone has posted pictures of other contrails that kinda sorta look like the same thing. Not quite hard evidence.
If it’s not a contrail, someone has a lot of ‘splaining to do. The alternatives are nearly all really bad. The odds of the Navy not knowing about the launch are almost zero. If it were a sub-launched ICBM they’d have picked it up on passive sonar even if they weren’t actively tracking the boat. They’d have the perp located already. The Air Force would have picked it up with the ballistic missile defense system radars, assuming they are active, since they are supposedly protecting us from rogue North Korean missiles. I just can’t see a scenario where they wouldn’t have picked it up almost immediately on radar.
The thing that makes me a little nervous is that none of those safeguards work if you don’t use them. If the radars aren’t looking and the sonars aren’t listening, they don’t do much good. The best conspiracy theory would be a Chinese boomer performing a launch “test” in international waters off of L.A. They picked the absolute best time and place to do it if you want many, many people to notice it. The timing is interesting, also, in that the Fed just watered down the dollar yet again, which makes all those Chinese-owned bonds worth quite a bit less. They can’t be happy with that.
I’m still leaning towards the contrail solution, if only because of the lack of response by the DoD and the lack of eye-witness interviews from airline passengers coming into LAX. I think it looks more like a rocket launch but there would be more evidence leaking out if it were a missile. I guess time will tell. Personally I think the Lizard People are behind it ;-).


It was an errant carbon offset, out for a joyride.

Steve in SC

Had to be Nancy Pelosi on her JATO equipped broom.

foley hund

Had other high flying aircraft been in the area we would have some comparison. I suspect high altitude flights were not producing contrails due the current atmospheric conditions, therefore it would appear to be a heavy solid rocket booster launched to the west, thus the contrail of smoke and lack of apparent speed relative to an observor to the east. Because is was heavy, recall the liquid fueled Saturn V left the ground somewhat slow compared to the space shuttle with its solid rocket jump and plenty of smoke and water vapor. Either way, it is a great shot.

Chris B

Has anyone called the local airport to identify what flight it was? With the observed time and a triangulated location it should be pretty easy to nail down the flight and put the conspiracy theorists collective “minds” at ease.


Jeff Id:
I wish we could obtain the full video without being edited, but from the few seconds available on the YouTube version, the missile does seem to slow down as expected.
Let me explain that a little better:
With a flat trajectory like an aircraft, the angular change over time will be slow at a distance and will appear to speed up as it gets closer. Simple geometry, since the angles will change much more rapidly the closer the object is to you.
With something like a satellite is viewed at night, the angles over time are almost constant and the difference is very different from an aircraft. With training, you can tell the difference between a satellite and an aircraft in a matter of seconds, simply by observing the change of angles over time.
With a missile moving away from the observer, then angles change rapidly at first, but as it grains altitude and distance, the angular changes will appear to slow down.
The second clue that the object was moving away from the observer, is that the detailed structure of the exhaust plume become harder to see. With an aircraft getting closer, the details would increase.
The third clue was the distortion of the exhaust plume as it passed through different wind shears at it gained altitude. Most notible to me was the wind shear at the cloud layer.
Anyway, I wish we could obtained a better version of the original video, so that the angles over time could be measured and plotted.

Anthony and all:
You do realize that San Clemente Island just SW of Santa Catalina is home to a US Rocket test facility and is also where US Navy ships go to do live fire exercises?
As to speed: Tomahawk Cruise Missiles fly at the same speed as an airplane.

The BGM-109 Tomahawk is a long-range, all-weather, subsonic cruise missile.

The exhaust plume looks just like that from a ship launched Tomahawk launch:
Now if the Navy fired off a Tomahawk that went awry due to something wrong with guidance system, that is system wide, that is something the Pentagon is NOT going to fess up to since the Tomahawk is the Navy’s main weapon now. So since it got caught on tape you get the “it’s a plane, nothing to see here move along”.
Also do you honestly think that any plane can fly within 35 miles of LA and NOT be on the LAX and military’s radar in this post 9/11 world? If you do I got some bottom land for sale for you, just don’t ask what it is on the bottom of. Remember that was filmed yesterday, not today, if it had been a plane LAX would have known about it as well as the US military yesterday and we wouldn’t have this mad scramble for an excuse. Also notice the Pentagon latched onto the plane excuse after some so called “debunking group” proclaimed it, they didn’t come up with it themselves.

Alberta Slim

Its just the Area 51 aliens going home for Xmas.


Spanking my hand for not spell checking, but I was trying to study the video and explain what I was seeing.
Anyway, the change in angles over time is the important clue to this video.

Charlie A

Does anybody have the exact time and location of the helicopter that took the video.
At 5:10PM Alaska Airlines flight 225 from Cabo San Lucas to SFO passed through the area at 34,000′ while an AS-350 Astar helicopter was hovering over near Rancho Palo Verdes.
I got the above info from a program that is designed to let airport neighbors determine the culprit when they are awakened at 2AM by a noisy jet.


Unfortunately, I think people are getting dumber over time. They can be made to believe contrails are secret missile launches and that trace gases can affect tropospheric temperatures.
Or has it always been this way?
What’s next? Are we going to bring the dunking chairs out of storage and test suspected witches again, debating about how long a suspected witch must be kept submerged for the test to be valid (using complicated statistics this time)?
I can see it now; “The Journal of Applied Witch-testing” peer-reviewed and all….