Tuesday, November 09, 2010

So What Was It?

What was that mysterious object appearing to rocket into the sky off the coast of LA last evening? It certainly looked impressive in the video from a TV station helicopter and it left US military officials (at least publicly) quite perplexed for a full day.

My curiosity led me to do a little online research on China's Sea Launch Ballistic Missile (SLBM) capabilities. Most of the descriptive information from Western experts was several years old but clearly indicated that China was pushing toward a robust SLBM capability.

The Chinese would have had the motivation, especially right now. They're probably not too pleased to see the US President moving through Asia with an entourage worthy of, well, a Chinese emperor, and might be tempted to make a upstaging show of power. And they also likely have the capability, though eluding detection to get so close to the US coast would also indicate a serious gap in our defense monitoring operations.

Anyway, a more likely, if unexpected explanation has emerged. Where you view an event from determines your perspective and how the event appears to you. What looks like an ascending missile moving away from you could also be a plane approaching leaving an expanding contrail in its wake. A more detailed explanation including previous examples of this occurrence and an illustration of the geometry of this illusion are contained in this article. Also, a likely airliner flight in the right place at the right time has been identified.

This event does bring to mind the time when I was living in California and driving east toward Yosemite with a friend on a bright sunny day when I noticed a bright trail rising vertically from the southern horizon (the direction of Vandenberg AFB, the primary US west coast launch site). I pulled over and we got out and watched for a few minutes until the object got higher (from our point of view) and it became obvious that it was simply a jetliner coming toward us.

Now, revelation of videos taken from other angles or other evidence corroborating a missile launch could change this story again, but it appears that the most mundane explanation turns out to be the most plausible.

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