China’s surveillance balloon entered U.S. airspace near Alaska before transiting over Canada and then the continental U.S.
The Defense Department said it was tracking the balloon over the continental U.S., and that the balloon had been over Montana a day earlier, on Feb. 1. Following the announcement, the balloon stopped loitering and proceeded as fast as it could toward the East Coast, a U.S. official said.
Feb. 4: Balloon shot down
A U.S. fighter jet shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina.
The spy balloon’s height was comparable to the Statue of Liberty, about “200 feet tall with a jetliner size payload,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Melissa Dalton told senators during a hearing on Feb. 9.
It had collection pod equipment, including high-tech equipment that could collect communications signals and other sensitive information, and solar panels located on the metal truss suspended below the balloon, according to government officials. It had equipment that was “clearly for intelligence surveillance,” including “multiple antennas” that were “likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications,” according to a statement by a senior State Department official.
Video of the balloon showed small motors and multiple propellers that allowed China to actively maneuver the balloon over specific locations, according to a senior administration official, and it was steered by rudder, a U.S. official said.
The balloon’s payload weighed more than a couple thousand pounds, according to Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command.
Feb. 5: Balloon recovery begins
Recovery of the balloon began. It was delayed by a day after it was shot down because of rough seas off the coast of South Carolina, Dalton said.
A U.S. official said later that underwater pictures of the debris field show the wreckage remarkably intact given its fall from 60,000 feet. The debris field is about seven miles wide and the debris is in relatively shallow water, at about 47 feet deep, according to a senior military official.
Navy and FBI dive teams have been involved in the search.
Upon collection of the wreckage, the evidence was rinsed clean of salt water before the FBI forensically examined it, according to senior FBI officials.
The FBI has been evaluating evidence collected from debris field in the Atlantic at the bureau’s lab in Quantico, Virginia, senior FBI officials said. The FBI lab has the balloon canopy, wires and other electronic components collected from the water surface. The officials said they have not detected explosive materials on the evidence that has already been examined.
In an interview with CBS News, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the “majority” of the balloon pieces that were on the surface had been recovered. “We’ve mapped out the debris field and now we’ll go through detailed efforts to recover the debris that’s on the ocean floor,” Austin said.
The search for debris was suspended because of bad weather. The debris that was not retrieved from the bottom of the ocean had been weighted down to prevent it from being moved by the heavy seas.
Feb. 10 to 12: Three more unidentified objects
Three more objects were spotted over U.S. and Canadian airspace. On Friday, Feb. 10, U.S. officials downed a “high-altitude object” off the coast of Alaska. An unidentified object was shot down in Canadian airspace the next day, and the U.S. military shot down another object spotted over the Great Lakes region that Sunday, Feb. 12.
During a briefing that night, Defense Department officials said the last three objects did not pose a kinetic military threat, but their path and proximity to sensitive Defense Department sites and the altitude they were flying could be a hazard to civilian aviation and thus raised concern.
Dalton said in the briefing with reporters that the U.S has been more closely scrutinizing airspace at certain altitudes, including enhancing the radar.
The unidentified object that was downed near Alaska was the size of a small car, according to the Pentagon. The object shot down over Lake Huron appeared to be octagonal in shape with strings hanging off, but no discernable payload, a senior administration official said.
Feb. 13: Balloon recovery
Recovery efforts resumed after being postponed because of bad weather.
A U.S. official said a “significant” portion – 30 to 40 feet – of the balloon’s antenna array was recovered from the ocean bottom. These portions will be going to an FBI lab at Quantico, an official said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the State Department has had communication with its Chinese counterpart because “we believe in keeping lines of communication open.”
Price said the focus remained on recovery efforts.
More photos were released of what has been recovered so far of the balloon.
Feb. 13: Other unidentified objects
The search for the objects shot down off the coast of Alaska and over Canada is continuing, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said during a White House briefing, because the remains are located in remote terrain, making them hard to find. He said the object over Lake Huron is in deep water.
Kirby said that the U.S. did not detect that any of the objects were sending communications signals before they were shot down. The U.S. also assessed that they showed no signs of self-propulsion or maneuvering and were not manned, he said.
“The likely hypothesis is they were being moved by the prevailing winds,” Kirby said.
Kirby said on MSNBC on Monday that the objects were flying at between 20,000 and 40,000 feet. Most commercial aircraft fly at about 30,000 feet. These objects were also shot down, he said, because they were much smaller than the Chinese balloon.
No one has claimed ownership of any of them and the U.S., Kirby said, has not yet been able to gain access to the unmanned objects in part because of weather conditions and also because the one shot down Sunday over Lake Huron is underwater.
There may be “completely benign and totally explainable reasons” for why these objects were flying over North America, but the U.S. won’t know whether that’s the case until they are retrieved, Kirby said.
Kirby said there is so far no indication that the three unidentified objects were part of Chinas’ spying program or involved in “external intelligence collection efforts.” The U.S. is also “ruling out that they were U.S. government objects,” he said. Though it’s still possible they were linked to commercial or research entities.
“That very well could be or could emerge as a leading explanation here,” he told reporters.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that the first missile fired by a U.S. fighter jet at the object over Lake Huron missed its target and landed in the water. The second missile hit the target, he said.
Milley also revealed more about the search for the three objects, saying none have yet been recovered because they’re located in “very difficult terrain” — one in the Arctic Circle off the coast of Alaska, the second in a mountain range in northern Canada and the third is likely a couple hundred feet underwater in Lake Huron.
“We’ll get them eventually but it’s going to take some time to recover them,” he said.