The three objects blasted out of the sky recently by U.S. fighter jets likely weren't doing anything nefarious up there, President Joe Biden said.
The mystery objects were shot down with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles off the coast of northern Alaska on Friday (Feb. 10), over the Yukon in northwestern Canada on Saturday (Feb. 11) and above Lake Huron on Sunday (Feb. 12).
Biden said during a press conference today (Feb. 16) that he ordered the take-downs for two main reasons: The craft were flying low enough to pose a risk to civilian air traffic, and they could have been gathering intelligence about sensitive U.S. facilities.
That latter possibility likely loomed large in military officials' minds, given that a bona fide spy craft — a huge, uncrewed Chinese surveillance balloon — had recently flown over much of the continental U.S. before being shot down off the South Carolina coast on Feb. 4.
But further analysis suggests that the three mystery objects weren't connected to the Chinese balloon incursion, according to Biden.
"We don't yet know exactly what these three objects were. But nothing right now suggests they were related to China's spy balloon program, or that they were surveillance vehicles from other any other country," the president said today.
"The intelligence community's current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions, studying weather or conducting other scientific research," he added.
Biden also stressed that the recent incidents aren't evidence of a surge in worrisome aerial activity. Rather, he said, the U.S. is simply picking up more objects now, because it lowered the detection thresholds on its radar facilities after the Chinese spy balloon's flyover.
The U.S. response to unidentified aerial objects is a work in progress, Biden added.
"We have to keep adapting our approach to dealing with these challenges," he said. "That's why I've directed my team to come back to me with sharper rules for how we will deal with these unidentified objects moving forward, distinguishing between those that are likely to pose safety and security risks that necessitate action and those that do not. But make no mistake: If any object presents a threat to the safety and security the American people, I will take it down."
The U.S. military is working to recover pieces of all the downed aircraft — the three apparent research balloons as well as the Chinese surveillance airship, whose debris fell into water just 50 feet (15 meters) or so deep and is therefore relatively accessible.
"Our experts have lifted components of the Chinese balloon's payload off the ocean floor," Biden said. "We're analyzing them as I speak, and what we learn will strengthen our capabilities."
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.