Pentagon Can't Explain Apparent Mystery Plume Off California Coast

(CNN) The Pentagon is unable to explain images of what witnesses took to be a high-altitude rocket launched off the coast of southern California at sunset Monday, officials said.

But John Pike, a defense expert who is director of GlobalSecurity.org, said he believes he has solved the mystery.

"It's clearly an airplane contrail," Pike said Tuesday afternoon. "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 said the contrail could very well be from an airplane. An "illusion" effect made the contrail appear as if it's rising straight up, but it's 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.

Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said later Tuesday that while there is no evidence that the contrail was left by a missile the department is still investigating.