NORAD: Er, we’re still not sure what the mystery missile is; Update: Looks like a plane, say defense analysts

The good news: They don’t think it came from a foreign military. The bad news: That’s … about all they can tell us. I just asked on Twitter whether it’s normal for U.S. air defense specialists to need a full day to figure out whether and why a ballistic missile was launched off the coast of Los Angeles.

The answer, via Danger Room: No, it’s not normal. Or at least, it shouldn’t be:

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.

If this missile was launched at sea, was it launched from a ship or sub? If it wasn’t our ship or sub, then whose ship or sub was it? Did anyone cross-reference the launch with public AIS logs from the port of Los Angeles yet? How many dozens of times have we had someone give Congressional testimony regarding the scenario where a non-state actor launches a short ranged ballistic missile from a ship off the coast?

I raise that last point to note, if the mystery missile didn’t come from our military, you have to start looking for alternatives… and most of those alternatives are a threat to national security.

Here’s a military expert on Fox News insisting that someone, whether at NORAD or elsewhere in the government, knows exactly what’s going on and at this point they’re simply trying to figure out a way to explain it to the public. On Twitter, John Noonan assures me that this couldn’t possibly have been an accidental launch from a sub since launches involve multiple sailors and intricate procedures. It would take more than someone hitting a button by accident.

Update: Patterico, who lives in L.A., thinks he saw the contrail last night:

I assumed it was an airplane contrail, with a bright orange trail leading into the sea somewhere north of Catalina.

What I found interesting, though, was that if you traced it back away from the sea towards land, it became a sort of ghostly translucent dark blue color. I had never seen a color like that before on a contrail and it got my attention.

Update: The experts say it’s a plane, but we’ve all seen planes overhead before and I’ve never seen a contrail like that. For what it’s worth.

But to director John Pike, there’s an easy explanation: “It is obviously an airplane.”

“The aircraft is flying towards the observer; the air over the Pacific is clear, so the contrail is visible all the way to the horizon. This creates the optical illusion of a rocket flying up, rather than the actual situation of an airplane flying horizontally,” Pike tells Danger Room. “The object generating the contrail is moving too slowly to be a rocket; the contrail is not expanding as the ‘rocket’ gains ‘altitude’ — which would be the case as the exhaust plume expanding into less dense high altitude air.”

MIT astronomer Jonathan McDowell tells New Scientist pretty much the same thing. Although he does note that the Navy owns a missile target and launch facility at nearby San Nicolas Island.