A high-altitude balloon floats over the United States.
In late January 2023, the U.S. government began tracking a flying object. It was traveling relatively slowly at an altitude, or height off of the ground, of around 60,000 feet. It entered United States airspace on January 28 over Alaska.
In fact, the object wasn’t that hard to spot. It was made up of a balloon—nearly 200 feet tall—and a payload of equipment—about the size of 3 city buses. When filled with a gas lighter than air—like helium—balloons like this one can carry heavy payloads high into Earth’s atmosphere.
On February 3, the Chinese government confirmed that the balloon was launched from China. However, they insisted that it was merely a weather balloon conducting scientific research. They claimed that winds had blown it off course. Scientist often launch high-altitude weather balloons to conduct research in Earth’s atmosphere. The data from this research helps them forecast and predict weather patterns.
According to U.S. experts, though, this balloon was carrying more equipment than a normal weather balloon. Clearly visible on images were large solar panels, antennas, sensors, 2 propellers, and a rudder to help steer the balloon. After entering U.S. airspace over Alaska, the balloon floated over Canada before re-entering the U.S. over Idaho. The balloon then moved eastward across the U.S., including over some sensitive military sites.
At first, the U.S. military and President Biden were reluctant to shoot down the balloon. They feared that if it was shot down over land, falling debris might injury or kill people. They reassured the American people that measures were in place to guard military secrets. They advised that the safest thing would be to wait.
By February 4, the balloon had reached the coast of South Carolina. Once it was safely over the Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. Air Force shot down the balloon. The U.S. Navy was standing by to recover the debris. The debris was spread over a seven-mile-wide area. Because of rough seas and bad weather, the recovery effort took several days.
The Chinese government still maintains that it was a weather balloon. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) will examine the debris and draw their own conclusion. However, U.S. officials do believe that winds pushed the balloon off-course. They believe it was supposed to fly over the islands of Hawaii and Guam in the Pacific Ocean.