Chinese surveillance balloon in US airspace causes international stir

China has confirmed that a massive high-altitude balloon seen over Montana this week was an uncrewed Chinese airship.

The balloon was spotted near Billings, Montana, on Wednesday (Feb. 1) as it appeared to be hovering stationary, high in the sky. On Thursday (Feb. 2), U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) confirmed that they had detected and are tracking a "high-altitude surveillance balloon" over the continental United States. NORAD stated the balloon poses no physical or military threat to anyone on the ground, according to Cmdr. Gen. Glen VanHerck.

In a rare public apology, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Friday (Feb. 3) that confirms the high-altitude airship is indeed from China and that it "is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes." China's statement says the airship deviated from its course due to prevailing winds from the west and that the "Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace." Despite the apology, the presence of the Chinese balloon has already caused an international stir.

Related: China launches mysterious new spy satellite

Canada, which runs NORAD alongside the United States, issued its own statement through its Department of National Defence. "A high-altitude surveillance balloon was detected and its movements are being actively tracked by NORAD," the statement reads. "Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident."

Despite hawkish statements being thrown around in the halls of U.S. Congress, a Department of Defense (DOD) statement published Thursday states that "the U.S. position is to allow the balloon to continue to float above the United States, rather than attempt to shoot it down" due to the risk of debris falling on civilians below.

"Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collective collection perspective," according to an unnamed official quoted in the DOD's statement. "But we are taking steps, nevertheless, to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information. We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area," the official continued. 

The appearance of the balloon prompted a ground stop on air traffic in Billings, NBC reported.

The balloon isn't the first such incursion. "It's happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration," the official continued. "It is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time, this time around, [and is] more persistent than in previous instances. That would be one distinguishing factor." 

The balloon's exact altitude hasn't been shared by the U.S. government or military agencies, but the same official noted that it is flying well above commercial airline traffic. On Friday (Feb. 3), the Washington Post's Dan Lamothe reported that Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the balloon is flying at 60,000 feet (18 kilometers), and added that the Pentagon is confident that airship is being used for surveillance.

Images of the airship shared on social media show a massive white envelope (the gas-filled portion) beneath which hang solar panels on trusses. One expert quoted by Reuters estimated its size to be "equivalent to three bus lengths," which would make it between 60 and 120 feet (18 to 36 meters) across. 

Officials have not commented about what types of sensors the balloon might carry. Montana, where the balloon was seen, is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three U.S. military installations that oversee the United States' Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Bloomberg reports that the White House has announced it will postpone Secretary of State Antony Blinken's upcoming trip to Beijing due to the incident.

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Brett Tingley
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Brett is curious about emerging aerospace technologies, alternative launch concepts, military space developments and uncrewed aircraft systems. Brett's work has appeared on Scientific American, The War Zone, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett enjoys skywatching throughout the dark skies of the Appalachian mountains.

  • Unclear Engineer
    There are some odd things about this story.

    For one thing, it seems odd that there is no place in eastern Montana that the U.S. Government thinks is open enough to have the debris fall from this balloon if it is deflated by a weapon.

    For another, how can they know it is gathering surveillance info if they can't get to it and don't shoot it down to directly check it out?

    This is already getting highly political. Since it has happened before with little comment, it seems odd that it is making such big political waves at this time. Are we just seeing propaganda from our own politicians? Or, is there something they aren not telling us about the thing? With satellite surveilance available to China and the U.S. it seems strange that a balloon would provide additional useful info. Maybe cell phone usage by defence personnel? I assume that would be beamed to a satellite rather than be stored on the balloon for later retrieval.

    If I were in charge of dealing with it, I would quietly bring it down in the Atlantic whenever it gets there and check out what instruments are really on it. Then, if it is indeed spyware, I would get the politicians involved and take the issue to the U.N.

    To me, the real concern is whether some other country, such as North Korea or Iran, could use the same technology to hang a nuclear weapon over the U.S. at some point. We at least need to be able to see it coming and take it down in a safe location - such as the Pacific Ocean.
  • rod
    Well, the news sources I am watching today are showing continuous coverage of this along with many pictures of the balloon. Some even reported F22 raptors looked it over. In 1960, Gary Powers in the U-2 was shot down by Russia.
  • rod
    "This is already getting highly political."

    IMO, this is well beyond political.
  • rod
    The Pentagon briefing earlier indicated this balloon could be maneuvered too. NORAD apparently has been tracking as it approached the USA, for some time. Political? Way beyond politics IMO.
  • Classical Motion
    Why not prick it? Let it come down slow on land, and see what it is. Did it file a flight plan? Did it ask permission to change course and altitude? It's a danger to navigation. Maybe someone doesn't want any evidence. And speculation can grow.
  • Unclear Engineer
    The news reports are now saying that this balloon was first detected over Alaska and tracked through Canada into Montana. Plenty of open space in those areas, so not clear to me why this thing can't be shot down safely (e.g. put a hole or two in the bag) in all that known path.

    Also, there is reporting that the U.S. "knows" it is doing surveillance, not just meterological study. There are reports that thing on the ground are being covered or moved. Really?! Does this thing really have so much better optics than the ubiquitous spy satellites?

    Because this has happened before without even mention in the press, this event seems to have some additional agendas driving it that aren't being discussed.

    At this point, I am wondering if it might not really just be a meteorlogical instrument.

    Either way, I hope we bring it down in a manner that allows us to get a full investigation of its capabilities. If China really is dumb enough to use that as a spy device, it is going to hurt them politically. And they don't strike me as politically stupid. So, I am left wondering what is really going on.
  • Jan Steinman
    Unclear Engineer said:
    … how can they know it is gathering surveillance info …
    I'm sure they've pointed antennas at it.

    Unless it's "record and pickup," it's going to be talking to the Mother Ship somehow. The US intelligence community knows how to tell. As an RF engineer and lifetime ham radio operator, I can think of numerous ways to detect its EMF emissions, and I'm sure the spooks know much more about it than I!
  • Unclear Engineer
    Jan Steinman said:
    I'm sure they've pointed antennas at it.

    Unless it's "record and pickup," it's going to be talking to the Mother Ship somehow. The US intelligence community knows how to tell. As an RF engineer and lifetime ham radio operator, I can think of numerous ways to detect its EMF emissions, and I'm sure the spooks know much more about it than I!

    Yes, I am sure the U.S. can figure out that it is transmitting something to somewhere. The question is what info is in the transmission. Can we tell meteorological data from, say, captured cell phone transmissions recoded to whatever the Chinese are using to encrypt their data transmission? That may be why we are seeing some of this odd behavior by our government. Maybe they can understand what the Chinese balloon is transmitting, but don't want the Chinese to know we can do that. Or, maybe the U.S. cannot decipher the Chinese transmission, but want the Chinese to worry that we can. There is a lot of "strategic ambiguity" being played here by the U.S. Strangely, China has at least openly said it is their balloon and have apologized.

    But, the U.S. is really going to need to get physical inspection capability for anybody else in the world to agree that there is any proof that China made an intentional incursion for the purpose of spying.

    As some of the talking heads on TV this morning pointed out, the balloon now over the U.S. had been tracked for a long time over extremely low population areas in Alaska and Canada, and became public knowledge over places in Montana where there is really only a tiny risk that it would fall onto a person if shot down there. So, that part of the story is really raising red flags about the current story coming from the U.S.

    And now there is another Chinese balloon somewhere over "Latin America". That seems to be less likely to be an intentional spy mission. But, maybe the Chinese released a lot of balloons so that at least one would end up where they wanted to spy on something? Or not. Maybe they released a bunch of balloons just to study atmospheric circulation, as they say they are doing. They may even be trying to get some data that will help them fend off arguments that they are releasing too much CO2, to counter some of the new data expected from the new CO2 sensing satellites.

    Not that I trust the Chinese Government, but I am wary of U.S. politicians. And, I also realize that the Defense Department can't explain everything they are thinking clearly to the U.S. population without divulging information (particularly about capabilities or lack thereof) that we don't want potential adversaries to know.
  • Unclear Engineer
    OK, They shot it down with a missile about 6 miles off the Carolina coast. It came down in 47 feet of water and "recovery" efforts are under way. It seems like the USCG and Navy should be able to collect everything they want from the debris field. So, hopefully we will get a true picture of what the balloon's instruments were actually doing. But, maybe not. The truth is going to be embarrassing to one country or the other, so, if it is the U.S. that would be embarrassed by getting upset over just a meteorological device, we may have some cover story about not getting everything or not being able to fully evaluate the damaged wreckage.

    The strange thing about this is that it isn't the first time it has happened; See which says:

    "The Pentagon says this isn’t the first time a balloon like this has flown over the U.S.

    "A senior defense official with the Pentagon said “balloons of this nature” have flown over the U.S. “a handful of other times over the past few years,” including before the Biden administration.

    "What’s different about this balloon is how long it’s been over U.S. airspace.

    “'It is appearing to hang out for a long period of time this time around, more persistent than in previous instances. So that would be one distinguishing factor,' the defense official told reporters.

    "During the Feb. 3 news conference, Ryder told reporters the instances of those other balloons flying into U.S. airspace are classified.

    "'I'm not able to provide it other than I can confirm that there have been other incidents where balloons did come close to or cross over U.S. territory,' Ryder said."

    Since those previous incidents did not make the news, could this time be different just because a lot of the public noticed it? Or is it because we are already miffed at China, this time? Or is there really something different that we are not being told?
  • Helio
    There are a lot of unresolved questions I hold.

    Given the lack of knowledge of a prior Chinese balloon entering US territory from essentially every top official from the prior administration, including the Dir. of Nat. Security (Grinnell), it's likely that any entry, as claimed, would have been a tip-toe (in and out) attempt of entering our airspace; too quick to respond. Yet I haven't found any details on those "prior" events in my searches.
    I'm surprised more observations weren't made prior to the first one, which seems to have come from Billings, MN.

    A 200 ft. balloon at 70k feet appears about 1/3 the size of the Moon's diameter. (0.16 deg. vs. Moon's at 0.5 deg.). During sunset it would appear notably brighter than Vega, by my rough calculations, and would have motion. Were there no amateur astronomer reports?