The US military was closely tracking a huge, high-altitude balloon from China as it sailed across the country on Friday — sparking a spying saga that led to Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly postponing a high-stakes Beijing trip.
The “maneuverable” balloon was first spotted Tuesday and has already traveled over sensitive military sites in Montana — and is expected to remain in American airspace for several more days, US officials say.
While China tried to claim the balloon was just a weather research “airship” that had blown off course, the Pentagon was quick to reject that claim — marking a new blow to already strained relations between Washington and Beijing.
Here’s what we know about the Chinese balloon so far:
What is a spy balloon?
Spy balloons are, simply put, a surveillance device.
The one discovered over the US in recent days is a Chinese high-altitude balloon that is flying over sensitive sites to collect information, US officials have said.
The balloon is “maneuverable” and is capable of changing course, Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder revealed at a Pentagon press briefing Friday.
He wouldn’t say precisely how the balloon was powered or who in China was controlling its flight path.
The balloon has a “payload” of surveillance equipment hanging from it, but there was no evidence of any nuclear or radioactive contents within the balloon, Ryder added.
Where is it in the US now?
The balloon had moved eastward and was over the central United States as of midday Friday midday, Pentagon officials said.
Moments later, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) tweeted that the balloon was over northeastern Kansas. Other sightings of the balloon were reported in northwestern Missouri, near the Kansas City metro area.
On Thursday, the balloon was spotted over the state of Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at the Malmstrom Air Force Base.
A US official said the flight path would likely carry the balloon over a number of sensitive sites, but did not elaborate further.
How high is it?
As of Friday afternoon, the balloon was at an altitude of about 60,000 feet, well above the limit for commercial air traffic.
The object does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground, Ryder said.
How big is the spy balloon?
US defense officials haven’t specified the exact size of the huge balloon but have said it is large enough that, despite its high altitude, it can be seen from the ground with the naked eye.
“The public certainly has the ability to look up in the sky and see where the balloon is,” Ryder said after declining to provide ongoing updates on the balloon’s exact location.
Why didn’t the US shoot it down?
The US military ruled out shooting down the balloon because of the safety risks to people on the ground given the size of the payload and potential for debris, officials said.
A senior defense official said the US scrambled fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot it down if ordered — but President Biden accepted the Pentagon’s recommendations to let the balloon be.
Ryder declined to rule out shooting down the device on Friday, saying the US would “review our options.”
What has China said?
China initially said the balloon was a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research that had strayed into US airspace after being blown off course.
US officials, however, say they have “very high confidence” the balloon was being flown over America to collect information due to its maneuverability.
Are balloon sightings common and what’s uncommon about this one?
Balloon sightings happen with some frequency.
In its January report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena – Pentagon jargon for UFO – the Defense Department noted 163 of 366 reports could be “characterized as balloon or balloon-like entities,” though it’s unclear where the entities were spotted and from what countries they came.
While this is not the first time a foreign spy balloon has floated through American airspace, there are several reasons why officials say this one stands out.
First, the timing of the balloon’s flight is curious, as one State Department official noted: “This is the first time it’s happened on the eve of a planned secretary of state visit” to China.
It was also spotted the same week the US confirmed a deal to increase its military presence in the Philippines, placing pressure on neighboring China and bringing US forces closer to Taiwan.
What don’t we know about the balloon?
Aside from saying there is “a surveillance capability underneath” the balloon, it’s unclear exactly what the object can – and is – doing. While Ryder said much of the information about the device is classified, a senior defense official on Thursday said it’s unlikely it has any better data-collection ability than a Chinese satellite — leaving open the question of why the balloon was sent across the Pacific in the first place.