This photo of China's spy balloon taken from a U-2 reconnaissance plane is absolutely bonkers (video)

One United States Air Force pilot has taken the selfie of a lifetime.

The U.S. Department of Defense released an image on Wednesday (Feb. 22) taken from the cockpit of a U-2 spy plane as it flew over the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that floated over the United States earlier this month. According to the caption that accompanies the image, the photograph was taken on Feb. 3 over the continental United States.

Aside from offering a rare look into the cockpit of a U-2 in flight, the photograph reveals the massive scale of the balloon and the sophisticated, satellite-like payload hanging beneath it. 

Related: US military begins recovering Chinese spy balloon debris (photos)

A U.S. Air Force pilot looked down at the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovered over the Central Continental United States February 3, 2023.  (Image credit: Department of Defense)

In the image, the Air Force pilot's helmet and pressurized suit can be seen in the foreground, while the balloon is visible off the starboard wingtip of the U-2 "Dragon Lady" spy plane. (U-2 pilots wear pressure suits to offer protection in the event of a loss of cabin pressure at the high altitudes at which the aircraft is capable of flying.)

U-2 pilots wear pressurized space suits due to the high altitudes at which the aircraft can fly. The U-2 "Dragon Lady" has a flight ceiling of 80,000 ft (24,000 m) and above. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jason W. Cochran)

Solar panel arrays hanging from the balloon can be seen in the image, as can several other details including what appears to be a large white antenna in the center of the payload. A number of other pieces of equipment can be seen, but it's unclear exactly what they might be. The Department of Defense previously stated that the balloon had the ability to maneuver, so it's possible that some of the equipment are propellers. 

In addition to offering a clear look at the balloon's payload, the image of the balloon contained enough of a view of the terrain beneath the U-2 for Twitter users to geolocate where the image was taken. According to one analysis posted on Wednesday (Feb. 22) by Twitter user @obretix, the image appears to have been taken roughly 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of St. Louis, Missouri near the city of Bellflower.

Others have used the image to estimate the size of the balloon. According to a Feb. 22 tweet from University of Texas at San Antonio aerodynamics professor Dr. Chris Combs, the shadow of the U-2 on the balloon's envelope should correspond to its actual size. Since the U-2 is 65 feet (20 meters) in length, the balloon would appear to be roughly 130 feet (40 meters) in diameter as previously estimated by the Pentagon.

A U-2 Dragon Lady flies over California at nearly 70,000 feet (21,000 meters) (Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Robert M. Trujillo)

After the photograph was taken on Feb. 4, the Pentagon ordered the balloon to be shot down off the coast of South Carolina, at which point its debris was recovered for analysis.

In the days that followed, U.S. Air Force aircraft shot down three additional "objects," at least one of which appears to have been a harmless research balloon. In the furor that followed, the Pentagon was compelled to issue a statement asserting there is no evidence any of the objects were an "indication of aliens or other extraterrestrial activity."

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Brett Tingley
Managing Editor,

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.