On January 28th, a Chinese surveillance balloon entered U.S. airspace over Alaska. The U.S. authorities tracked this balloon as it took off from Hainan, an island to the south of China. It drifted east, toward Guam and Hawaii and then turned north towards Alaska. After reaching Alaska, it came back down south, passing through Canada, and entered Montana on February 1st. From there, officials report, the balloon ceased drifting south and headed to the East Coast. It was eventually shot down by a U.S. fighter jet on February 4th off the coast of South Carolina.
The balloon itself was about 200 ft. tall, carrying a payload of a few thousand pounds. It held communication devices and advanced monitoring and scanning equipment “clearly for intelligence surveillance,” said the U.S. State Department. It also featured “multiple antennas likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications.” On the structure below, there were two large solar panels for powering the balloon and its components. China was able to control the balloon remotely by use of propellers and a rudder to steer the balloon.
After the balloon was shot down, a recovery team was dispatched to retrieve the debris, although they were delayed by a day due to weather conditions. Despite falling around 11 miles from its lofty patrol, the debris field was contained and the equipment itself was relatively intact and recoverable. The surface remnants were gathered quickly and sent to a lab for examination, where no explosive device was found. Underwater retrieval was again inhibited by weather conditions, but by February 16th, the U.S Northern Command said that the search was completed and that the “final pieces of debris are being transferred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory in Virginia.” Again, nothing besides electrical surveillance equipment was found.
While this event took center stage, three other unidentified flying objects were shot down as a precaution against other possible surveillance devices. Between February 10 and 12th, objects were shot down off the coast of Alaska, within Canadian airspace, and in the Great Lakes Region. All of these objects were deemed to have not been connected to the initial balloon. However, on February 17th, the search for these objects was called off, due to challenges faced in recovering them from deep water. Thus, the final intention of these objects remains unknown.
Through all of this, the U.S has maintained communication with China. “We believe in keeping lines of communication open,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price. The tensions both within the U.S. and between countries seem to have died down over the past few weeks and so it is unlikely that any more major revelations will arise from the event.