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Mystery vapor trail not likely from missile: Pentagon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials were trying to determine what caused a vapor trail reminiscent of a missile launch off the Southern California coast, but a day after the image was caught on tape the incident remained a mystery, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

Colonel David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said no Defense Department agencies with missile and rocket programs reported either scheduled or inadvertent missile launches during the time period and area of the condensation trail seen on Monday evening.

In fact, he said, “there is nothing at this time that leads the Department of Defense to believe this is a missile launch.”

The image, which looked like a rocket launch, was caught on tape by a KCBS news helicopter on Monday evening. Video showed a billowing contrail apparently rising from the water about 35 miles west of Los Angeles and north of Catalina Island. It was not clear whether it came from the land or sea.

Robert Ellsworth, a former NATO ambassador and former deputy defense secretary, reviewed the video with KCBS and described the condensation trail as “pretty big” and not likely to be from a Tomahawk cruise missile.

The image caught the attention of Pentagon officials, but initial checks on Tuesday left them perplexed about what caused the contrail.

“So far we’ve come up empty with any explanation,” Lapan told reporters early in the day. “We’re talking to other parts of the U.S. government. We’re doing everything we can to try to figure out if anybody has any knowledge of what this event may have been.”

By early evening there were still no clear answers, but Pentagon officials were increasingly doubtful the vapor trail could be attributed to a missile.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD, and U.S. Northern Command confirmed they “did not monitor any foreign military missile launch off the California coast yesterday -- that there was no threat to the U.S. homeland,” Lapan said.

The Federal Aviation Administration ran radar replays from Monday afternoon across a large area west of Los Angeles and saw no sign of fast-moving, unidentified targets, Lapan said. And the FAA had no reports of unusual sightings from pilots in the area, he added.

Because there had been no clear answer as to the cause of the vapor trail, U.S. officials were still looking into the incident, Lapan said.

“The department and other U.S. government agencies with expertise in aviation and space continue to look into the condensation trail seen and reported off the coast of southern California on Monday evening,” he said.

Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Todd Eastham

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