Columnist Leonard David

What are these mystery objects that US fighter jets keep shooting down?

A still frame of a video reportedly showing a Chinese surveillance balloon.
A still frame of a video reportedly showing a Chinese surveillance balloon. (Image credit: Chase Doak via Billings Gazette)

For the past week or so, it has seemed that North America is under some sort of aerial assault.

Multiple flying objects that have been tagged, for the most part, as unidentified have been shot down by U.S. fighter jets. (Another destroyed object was identified, by the U.S. military, as a Chinese surveillance balloon.) Recovery crews are working to find and study the resulting debris, to better understand where these intruders came from and what they were doing in our skies.

The attention these incursions are receiving could give rise to more reflection about unidentified flying objects (UFOs), or unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), as they've recently been rebranded. What do these sky-high visitations mean to the UAP/UFO community? Are there any lessons to be learned from these incidents, any takeaways from pilot descriptions of the objects?

Related: Previous Chinese spy balloons over US were classified as UFOs: report

Eyewitness accounts

A leading critic of the UFOs-are-alien spacecraft hypothesis is Mick West, a writer, skeptical investigator and a former video game programmer.

"The varied pilot reports we've seen in the media illustrate how difficult it is to get information about encounters with slow-moving objects from eyewitness accounts," West told Inside Outer Space.

"The difficulty of judging the speed of an object without knowing its distance is greatly compounded in an encounter with unfamiliar balloons where the pilots do not know how big they are," West said.

West pointed to both congressional testimony and the recent output and ongoing work of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the newly established All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO).

Low-information zone

Balloons are a common source of pilot reports of UFOs/UAPs, West said.

For example, a wayward balloon is a likely explanation for the famous "GoFast" UFO video, released in 2018, which seems to show an object moving at high speed over the ocean, but actually shows a much slower object, West added.

UFO reports emerge, he said, from the "low- information zone," or LIZ — the set of conditions where an object is just too far away, small, fast, blurred or out of focus to determine exactly what it is.

"NORAD's radar has always had a significant LIZ, where radar returns of low quality, or that resembled birds, balloons or other airborne clutter, have been filtered out as distractions to the primary mission of detecting incoming conventional aircraft and missiles," West said. (NORAD is short for "North American Aerospace Defense Command," a joint effort of the U.S. and Canada.)

"The furor over the large Chinese balloon has prompted NORAD to modify or eliminate the filters to attempt to better capture similar incursions," West said. "This has resulted in low-information objects being selected from the LIZ for investigation. Many of these will be innocuous items, like stray balloons, potentially even of U.S. origin."

Some items may be previously undetected adversary incursions, West added. "Disambiguating these will represent a significant challenge. Unfortunately, the perceived need to take rapid action will result in expensive and dangerous shoot-downs of a variety of objects based on limited information."

Related: UFOs and UAP: History, sightings and mysteries

An unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP), as captured by the sensors of a U.S. Navy jet.

An unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP), as captured by the sensors of a U.S. Navy jet. (Image credit: DoD/US Navy)

Aerial excitement

The chatter about balloon shoot-downs and UAP talk has also caught the attention of Robert Sheaffer, an author, freelance writer and skeptical investigator of all manner of bogus claims.

The ongoing aerial excitement involving balloons likely means one of two things — that the Chinese have just now dramatically increased their balloon-launching activities, "or that such balloons are no longer being ignored," Sheaffer said. "And it's more likely the latter."

Sheaffer pointed out that military pilots, and other official personnel, seem quite clueless about what is being seen.

As noted in one CNN report, some pilots have claimed that they couldn't see any identifiable propulsion on one of the recently shot-down objects. Those pilots could not explain how the object was staying in the air, despite its cruising at an altitude of 40,000 feet (12,000 meters).

However, "an object that is lighter than air does not need 'propulsion' to remain aloft," Sheaffer said.

"In recent years, the Chinese have developed small inflatable drones that could possibly account for some sightings," Sheaffer added.

Effects of perspective

Like West, Sheaffer invoked a balloon as a possible explanation for the "GoFast" UFO.

"That object is indeed 'going fast' with respect to the camera — perhaps 400 miles per hour [640 kph] — but relative to the ground, it is almost stationary," Sheaffer said. "The aircraft is passing the object at a high rate of speed, which makes the object appear to be moving rapidly in the opposite direction."

The fact that Navy pilots did not realize this suggests that they don't understand simple effects of perspective, Sheaffer said. "And the fact that the Pentagon's 'UAP experts' failed to realize what was happening demonstrates their complete incompetence in such matters," he added.

As for the other two publicly released videos — called "Tic Tac" and "Gimbal" — "they are probably the infrared signatures of distant jet aircraft, and have nothing to do with balloons," Sheaffer said.

Leonard David is author of the book "Moon Rush: The New Space Race," published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades.Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.  

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.

  • onmountain
    As an engineer, I find it amazing that we are supposed to believe everything is pilot error or misunderstandings. In the case of these 3 objects shot down (after the spy balloon), there has to be some form of electromagnetic or visual recordings. When I read that it can all be a misunderstanding, that just does not "fly" with me.

    The military does not waste jet fuel or $400k missiles, and potentially risk lives, to pop a toy balloon. And to do that 3 times in a row means they either 1) detected a real, present danger or threat of some kind and/or 2) they wanted physical evidence on the ground.

    I just read CNN's article about how we may never find the pieces of these 3 objects! Really???? That sounds really lame to me. These were not surprise encounters, but highly coordinated , multi-day events. My hat is off to the team for tracking these smaller objects, as well as to the designers of the targeting systems. Plus to the skill level of the pilots who go close to these objects and hit them.

    I can't believe that the fighters or other coordinated aircraft did not immediately follow these smoking debris as it fell down. They were very clear that the Alaska object fell on "frozen water" (why they can't just say sea ice I don't understand). The second was over the Yukon land area. The third into an interior great lake (Huron). We have fighter and weapon tracking data and even satellites that could give very specific impact points. Teams must have marked those spots and got down to them via security packages as quickly as possible. They certainly got to the offshore South Carolina spy balloon impact zone and had divers in there didn't they? That was an ocean situation, so the one over ice and the one over land must have been reached IMHO.

    I really would like to see people stop making excuses about why this could not be alien technology or possibly some other unknown phenomenon to our science - until we have examined the evidence. I want to see images and videos taken by the fighters and supporting aircraft. I want to see ground radar tracks. (a random balloon is not going to loiter over bases, silos, etc). I want to see what they found on the ground and in the water. Then we can intelligently respond to the question of the origin and purpose of these objects.

    If we don't see anything then I will become concerned. I see only 2 reasons if we see nothing: 1) We either do have another country with the ability to overfly us at will with unknown advanced tech. OR 2) We have evidence of off-world technology and will not disclose to the public to prevent "panic" or to horde secret tech. I do not like either of these possibilities.

    It is my hope that we will be shown the real information. I am 100% for space exploration, but we need to look right here on Earth and near-Earth as well. Knowing the real picture one way or the other will help us advance forward.
  • trailrider
    While I have no particular liking for some things the current administration does, I have to wonder if there isn't some intelligence data that we don't want disclosed so that whoever is the source for these objects, including the Chinese government, won't know how much we have discovered about the objects. There have been a number of instances in history where disclosing what we have discovered would cause the "other side" to change their designs, coding, etc. For example: During WWII, Britain had broken the Enigma code of Germany. One piece of vital information was that the Luftwaffe planned to bomb Coventry, a highly populated area. The British could have ordered Coventry evacuated, but to do so would have revealed the planned attack. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that Coventry not be evacuated, resulting in considerable loss of life from the attack. But the British went on "reading the other gentlemen's mail"! There are other examples, such as the Navy having broken the IJN's JN-25 codes. Who knows what else? Did the Glomar Explorer actually lose part of K-129? Or did they get it all, and for whatever reason of intel, and by agreement with the Soviets, is the report of failure false?

    Fox News just reported that we actually tracked the first device from when it lifted off from China! How did we do that? Only the Shadow knows! Maybe the Chinese know, but not exactly how!

    As to the possibility of extra-terrestrial sources, there may be something there, but in these four or five cases, I doubt it!
  • mikeash
    Lots of kids having parties I guess.
  • Dave
    There are three viable explanations. First, it very well could be something natural. For example an inventor trying out his/her latest gadget. Secondly, it could be foreign technology attempting a spy mission. The third viable explanation deals with an intelligent lifeform not from our world observing us. One thing is for certain, we will not get any answers from our military. They have a one word answer to every situation that deals with ' freedom of the press.' That word is 'classified.'

    As for human spaceflight or exploration, there hasn't been any of that, for over 50 years. It is only scientists and robots that explore now.
  • mikeash
    Yes, the disgustingly polluted skies. It is weird they don't use their guns to shoot them. 100K $ (I guess) sidewinders is out to lunch.
  • Pogo
    Yeah, I thought the guns would be better, it would come down more slowly and land softer. They could have tracked it until they had assets in the ground ready to pouch on it.

    I wonder if the later ones are copycat folks having fun!
  • Classical Motion
    I wonder if spraying the balloon object with liquid nitrogen would sink it?
  • Frank Sterle Jr
    Admin said:
    What do these sky-high visitations mean, if anything, to the UFO/UAP community? Are there any lessons to be learned from these incidents?

    What are these mystery objects that US fighter jets keep shooting down? : Read more

    Maybe a UFO-turned-ET is what we collectively need.

    Strangely and sadly, what humankind may need to brutally endure in order to survive the very-long-term from ourselves is an even greater, non-humanoid nemesis than our own politics and perceptions of differences — especially those involving race — against which we could all unite, defend, attack and defeat, then greatly celebrate.

    Perhaps a humanicidal, multi-tentacled extraterrestrial invader, like that from the 1996 blockbuster movie Independence Day. During this much-needed human allegiance, we’d be forced to work closely side-by-side together and witness just how humanly similar we are to each other.

    I've been informed, however, that one or more human parties might actually attempt to forge an allegiance with the ETs to better their own chances for survival, thus indicating that our wanting human condition may be even worse than I had originally thought.

    Still, maybe some five or more decades later when all traces of the nightmarish ET invasion are gone, we will inevitably revert to those same politics to which we humans seem so collectively hopelessly prone — including those of scale: the intercontinental, international, national, provincial or state, regional and municipal — and so forth we slide downwards.
  • Dave
    Any intelligent lifeform capable of interstellar travel have probably evolved past the need of social aggression. They have already come together as one, as a species.

    Unfortunately, our greatest nemesis, is ourselves. In order for us to survive in the future we must learn to come together as the human race. It is like taking care of a tree. You do not only look after its branches or its leaves, when caring for it. You must look after its roots. It is what you don't see that is most important. Human or global problems such as war, famine and climate change stymie us because no one entity is responsible for them. The root of the tree is in trouble. A global government with true power may provide a solution in our future.
    The truth is we are all already one race: the human race. We are all brothers and sisters. We are all the same and we all want the same things.

    It all starts with finding common ground.
  • Unclear Engineer
    Dave, I agree that humans are, and have been, our worst enemy for a long time, now.

    Unfortunately, it seems to be embedded in our nature. So, I don't think that "a global government with true power" is going to provide the solution. Because, without human nature itself changing, that government is likely to become controlled by corrupt people who use it for personal advantage or ego, at the expense of the governed. We have seen that in history, and we can see it operatiing today in several current dictatorships.

    So, it isn't the centralization of power that humans need to learn, it is the need for cooperation for the benefit of others in order to best benefit ourselves. And that is not just the benefit of human "others", but the benefit of the whole ecosystem that we and everything else alive on Earth actually need to survive and thrive.

    There are physical limits, and we must learn to live within them as a species. So far, we keep getting into fights over who gets a bigger share.

    IF we can learn to overcome that, then it is that change that might provide for one common goverrnment to be beneficial from an efficiency standpoint. But, the way we are now, we really need multiple options for governments, to reliably avoid a whole-world dictator.