Californians seem to be seeing a lot of meteor showers recently, or so they think.
On November 7, 2015, they watched the US Navy’s nuclear-capable Trident II ballistic missile light up the sky in Los Angeles.
On Wednesday July 27, 2016, they watched the Chinese CZ-7 rocket light up the sky again over the Inland Empire, Ventura County, Orange County and beyond. The streaks were also seen in Nevada and Arizona.
The rocket was launched on June 25 from China’s Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in Hainan, and U.S. Strategic Command spokeswoman Julie Ziegenhorn confirmed the command often sees re-entries of rockets. However, officials from Nellis Air Force Base in southern Nevada had earlier said the light was a meteor breaking up.
Rockets heading to orbit shed components that fall back to Earth, which can be seen when they flare up due to friction as they re-enter the atmosphere.
The Chang Zheng-7 rocket, or Long March 7, is China’s largest space launch vehicle to date and carried three important payloads in its cargo: the Tianyuan 1 satellite refueling system, LM-7 Upper Stage to remove space debris, and Next Generation Crewed Vehicle which is a reentry test item.
These projects complement the Tiangong 2 space station that is undergoing final rounds of testing before its launch later this year in mid-September, highlighting China’s aim to become a leading space power.
In fact in November 2010, there was another mysterious sighting of what appeared to be a missile contrail over California, which the Pentagon attributed to an airplane, but retired US Air Force Lt. General Tom Mcinerney believed it was a missile launched from a submarine.
And although the Pentagon confirmed a US submarine off the coast of California launched the Trident missiles in November 2015, oddly it never confirmed what was the mysterious launch in November 2010.
This led to speculation by some pundits that the mysterious contrail was from a Chinese missile launched by a Hainan-based Jin-class SSBN submarine off the California coast, to display Beijing’s displeasure over US and allied naval exercises in the South China and Yellow Sea earlier that year. Reportedly some Asian intelligence sources believe the submarine transited from Hainan through South Pacific waters where US anti-submarine warfare detection capabilities are not as effective, and then transited north to waters off Los Angeles.
This seems far-fetched, but the ability of Chinese submarines to sneak up on the US undetected is not entirely implausible, given in 2007 a Chinese submarine popped up in the middle of a US naval exercise and embarrassed the military chiefs. By the time the 160ft Song Class diesel-electric attack submarine surfaced, it was within viable range of launching torpedoes or missiles at the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk—a 1,000ft aircraft supercarrier with 4,500 personnel on board.
In October 2015, a Chinese submarine again stalked the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan for “at least half a day” off the coast of Japan, although the US Navy declined to disclose whether it was able to detect the submarine before it surfaced. The U.S.S. Ronald Reagan is a 1,092ft Nimitz class supercarrier with 3,200 personnel on board.
In a 24 July South China Morning Post article, military observers believe the actual reason for China’s claim over the South China Sea is to protect its expanding submarine fleet stationed in the Yulin naval base in Hainan, with unrestricted access to the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
In fact on 12 July, the same day the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague announced that China’s claims over the South China Sea had no legal basis, a photograph was “leaked” of China’s most advanced nuclear-powered submarine.
It revealed the expanded type 094A “Jin-class” submarine, leading to speculation that the vessel might be capable of delivering China’s new generation ICBM the JL-3, whose estimated range of 12,000km could reach the US from the South China Sea.
With increased frequency of both US and China launching missiles and rockets, and playing cat and mouse games with attack submarines and aircraft carriers, it likely won’t be long before Californians have another sighting of meteor showers.
Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University where she specializes in China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations, and a research consultant for Jane’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Intelligence Centre at IHS Jane’s.
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 Matt Hamilton and Veronica Rocha, “Streak of light over night sky is reentry of decaying Chinese rocket, defense officials say”, Los Angeles Times, 28 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-streak-light-20160727-snap-story.html
 Chinese rocket re-enters atmosphere near California”, ABC30, 28 July 2016, http://abc30.com/science/chinese-rocket-re-enters-atmosphere-near-california/1446727/; http://abc30.com/news/abc30insider-today-strange-light-seen-in-sky-over-west-coast/1446532/
 http://www.infowars.com/wayne-madsen-china-fired-missile-seen-in-southern-california/#; David McDonough, “Unveiled: China’s New Naval Base in the South China Sea”, The National Interest, 20 March 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/unveiled-chinas-new-naval-base-the-south-china-sea-12452
 Matthew Hickley, “The uninvited guest: Chinese sub pops up in middle of U.S. Navy exercise, leaving military chiefs red-faced,” Daily Mail, 10 November 2007, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-492804/The-uninvited-guest-Chinese-sub-pops-middle-U-S-Navy-exercise-leaving-military-chiefs-red-faced.html
 Kyle Mikozami, “A Chinese submarine stalked an American Aircraft Carrier”, Popular Mechanics, 6 November 2015, http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/news/a18094/a-chinese-submarine-stalked-an-american-aircraft-carrier/