A prototype missile defense system for the United States passed a critical test Saturday when it intercepted and destroyed an unarmed ballistic missile in a spectacular light show 140 miles above the Pacific Ocean, Pentagon officials reported.
Sheryl Irwin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, said a device launched into space from the Marshall Islands collided at about 7:20 p.m. with a Minuteman II missile fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc.
The interceptor struck the intercontinental ballistic missile about 3,000 miles from California at a combined speed of 16,000 mph, officials said. The Minuteman carried a dummy warhead and a decoy balloon.
"It was a successful intercept," Irwin said. "It did everything it was supposed to do, and it did it perfectly."
The collision in the northwestern sky turned the evening into a colorful light show for many observers throughout Southern California.
"It looked like a rainbow had broken into pieces," said Dan W. Disney, 43, of Santa Clarita. "When I first saw it, I thought something terrible was going to happen. It suddenly blew up all over the sky."
In Orange County, sheriff's deputies fielded calls and calmed the nerves of 25 to 30 people who were not sure what they had seen.
"Some people thought it was a meteor. Others thought they were just lights," said Lt. Steve Fauchier. "But quite a few thought it was Armageddon. They were saying that they saw alien forms coming out of the sky. With all these movies out now, people start panicking."
The interceptor, called an Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, is built by Raytheon. It weighs 120 pounds and is 55 inches long. Booster rockets are used to send it into space.
The system is designed to stop missiles launched by rogue states and terrorists, not a multi-missile barrage from a major power.
Some critics have faulted the test as unrealistic and too limited to make sound conclusions about the system's capabilities.
Pentagon officials said the interception was an important step for the project. Even a near miss would have been a success, they said, as long as the reason was known.
The test is the first of three before a readiness review scheduled by the Pentagon for June. To proceed with further testing, at least two of the launches must result in interceptions.