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Pentagon: Evidence indicates mystery plume was a plane contrail

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Pentagon says the streaks appear to be a condensation trail
  • One expert says it's an optical illusion
  • Some people thought it was a rocket launch

Washington (CNN) -- The streaks in the southern California sky on Monday appear to have been an aircraft condensation trail, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.

Col. Dave Lapan said the contrails -- which glowed orange in the sunset-streaked sky Monday evening -- looked like a rocket launch to some people, but "there was no threat to the U.S. homeland."

Lapan said no evidence exists to suggest that the streaks were "anything else other than a condensation trail from an aircraft."

The Pentagon initially was unable to explain the images of what witnesses took to be a high-altitude rocket launch off the coast of southern California at sunset Monday.

This corresponds with the conclusion of John Pike, a defense expert and the director of GlobalSecurity.org.

"It's clearly an airplane contrail," Pike said Tuesday.

"It's an optical illusion that looks like it's going up, whereas in reality it's going towards the camera. The tip of the contrail is moving far too slowly to be a rocket. When it's illuminated by the sunset, you can see hundreds of miles of it ... all the way to the horizon.

"Why the government is so badly organized that they can't get somebody out there to explain it and make this story go away ... I think that's the real story," Pike added. "I mean, it's insane that with all the money we are spending, all these technically competent people, that they can't get somebody out there to explain what is incredibly obvious."

A U.S. Northern Command official who didn't want to be identified had said the contrail could very well be from an airplane.

An "illusion" effect made the contrail appear as if it was rising straight up, but it was actually level, the official said. The event is similar to another sighting around New Year's Eve in which observers believed they witnessed a missile, he said.

No Defense Department units reported launches at the time. The North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command did not report any foreign missile launches off the California coast, Lapan added. Regardless, there was no threat to the United States, he said.

Tuesday morning, the Pentagon and the North American Aerospace Defense Command were investigating video shot by a news helicopter operated by CNN affiliate KCBS/KCAL showing an ascending orange-colored contrail high into the atmosphere, officials said. A contrail is the visible vapor trail behind airplanes or rockets traveling at high altitudes.

The Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force, and California Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Jane Harman -- whose coastal districts are closest to the offshore contrails -- were at a loss to explain the images.

"The FAA ran radar replays of a large area west of Los Angeles based on media reports of the possible missile launch at approximately 5 p.m. (PT) on Monday. The radar replays did not reveal any fast moving, unidentified targets in that area," said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. "The FAA did not receive reports ... of unusual sightings from pilots who were flying in the area on Monday afternoon.

"The FAA did not approve any commercial space launches around the area Monday," he added.

CNN's Michael Martinez, Casey Wian, Charley Keyes and Chris Lawrence contributed to this report.