In recent weeks, four mysterious objects have been seen in the skies above North America. All were shot down by US fighter jets. However, authorities are still investigating their origin and purpose.
The first balloon
On January 28, 2023, a giant white balloon entered US airspace near Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The uncrewed vessel was 200 feet (61 meters) tall and weighed about 2,000 pounds (907 kg). Its multiple motors and propellers allowed it to be remotely guided over specific locations. The balloon's massive undercarriage contained solar-powered surveillance technology.
US officials were aware that the balloon was of Chinese origin. But they were reluctant to shoot it down because the debris would hit populated areas. The balloon was closely monitored. It was sunk on February 4, 2023, about six miles (9.6 km) off the coast of South Carolina.
Chinese officials maintain that the balloon was collecting weather data. They claim it was pushed off course into US territory by the strong winds. However, US officials say its equipment was clearly designed for spying. A debris analysis will confirm if they are right.
On February 9, 2023, the US military downed a "cylindrical and silver-ish gray" object flying over Alaska. Two days later, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau authorized the shooting of a small, "cylindrical object" over Canada's Yukon territory. A fourth object was taken down on February 12, 2023. It was flying at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) above Lake Huron. On February 16, 2023, US President Joe Biden said that the three balloons "most likely" belonged to private companies or research institutions.
"We acted out of an abundance of caution and had an opportunity that allowed us to take down these objects safely," Mr. Biden explained.
Why so many mysterious flying objects?
The sudden spike in mysterious flying objects may appear alarming. However, US officials say they can be credited to the increased scrutiny of our skies in the past few weeks. After the discovery of the Chinese balloon, the country's radars have been adjusted to detect similar objects. Now, devices that would usually go unnoticed are setting off alarm bells.
American military forces are currently collecting the remains of all the balloons. This will allow officials to determine if they posed any danger to the US.
"Right now, our priority is on — is debris recovery so that we can get a better sense of what these objects are," US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a press conference on February 13, 2023.
Resources: CNN.com, USAtoday.com, Defense.gov