“Mystery Missile Launch” Was Most Likely A Jet Contrail

While the Pentagon remains mum on the subject, the general consensus about the mysterious “missile launch” that excited some in Southern California on Monday night is that it was most likely an optical illusion created by a jet contrail at sunset:

A series of U.S. government agencies said Tuesday that they could not explain what created a vapor trail that lit up the sky Monday night over Southern California.

But a series of civilian experts said they could. It was not a missile, they said, as many conjectured, but an airplane.

Video posted online showed an object flying off the Pacific coast near Los Angeles, leaving a large condensation trail, or contrail, that turned pink in the setting sun. A news helicopter owned by KCBS, a CBS affiliate in Los Angeles, shot the video. At sunset, the contrail looked like one created by a missile launch.

That theory got legs once another CBS affiliate, KFMB in San Diego, showed the clip to Robert Ellsworth, a former deputy secretary of defense and ambassador to NATO, to get his thoughts. “It’s spectacular. . . . It takes people’s breath away,” he said. He called the projectile “a big missile.”

Reporters asked the Pentagon, the Air Force, the Navy, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the U.S. Northern Command and the Federal Aviation Administration what that thing in the evening sky was. But none of them knew.

NORAD did say the contrail was not the result of a foreign military launching a missile. NORAD added, reassuringly, that the United States was not in danger.

The FAA did not receive any reports of unusual sightings from pilots flying in the area, according to Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for the Defense Department.

The FAA said that private businesses would need to apply for a license to launch a missile and that none had. It also said that a review of radar tapes of the region revealed no fast-moving unidentified objects.

Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, told reporters and editors at The Washington Post that it “wasn’t a Navy missile.” He declined to go into more detail. He did, however, appear to be smiling when he said it.

Said John Pike, a defense and aerospace expert who runs GlobalSecurity.org: “This thing is so obviously an airplane contrail, and yet apparently all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t find someone to stand up and say it.” He added, “I guess the president’s out of town.”

The object, Pike said, was moving too slowly to be a missile, adding: “There’s a reason that they’re called rockets.”

It looked like a missile launch, he said, because of an optical illusion that made the contrail appear as though it started on the ground and zoomed straight up.

In reality, he said, the contrail began on the horizon and ran parallel to the ground.

“It was an unusually clear day,” he said. So what looked like a missile launch 35 miles off the coast of Los Angeles was actually the contrail of a jet that stretched 300 miles into the distance, he said.

“At the end of the day, you really have to go with the simplest explanation,” he added.

Or, as it’s more popularly known, Occam’s Razor.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Boyd says:

    I’m not sure why you say “the Pentagon remains mum” on the subject when the story you quote includes comments from both NORAD and the Chief of Naval Operations. I can also find many articles online that quote Pentagon sources.

    So, they ain’t quite mum, Doug.

    I know it seems picky, but it’s a practically meaningless lead-in to your post, and it’s revealed as inaccurate by your own quotes. I guess it just rankled me.


  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Well, that’s what they’d want you believe, isn’t it? 😉

  3. All the Pentagon and NORAD are saying is the “I know nothing” response (sort of like Sgt Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes) so I’d call that “mum”

    Now, step away from the keyboard and take a good long sip of that coffee 🙂

  4. Boyd says:

    Careful now, Doug. I’m a Chief Petty Officer, and there are few more certain paths to pain and suffering than getting between a Chief and his coffee. 🙂

    Seriously, if it’s not a military missile or the like, what the hell are they supposed to say? “No, seriously. It’s not ours! Really! I mean it this time!”