What we know about the 4 objects shot down over North America
The Washington Post February 13, 2023
If your weekend was spent focused on something other than the protection of North American airspace, you might have missed that a few more maybe-balloons were taken down by military aircraft. There was one Friday night … and one Saturday and one Sunday. Meaning that the total number of objects shot down over North America so far this month is four.
What this probably represents, though, is an increase in awareness rather than a new barrage of surveillance efforts by China. By now, the government seems pretty confident that the large object shot down near South Carolina on Feb. 4 was a surveillance craft sent by that country. The most recent three, though, are of unclear origin and, it seems, much smaller than the first.
We'll walk through all four incidents, but let's first dispatch with some questions that come up a lot.
Frequently asked questions
Are these alien craft? This was probably one of your first questions, right? It's one that was posed to Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, who oversees the North American Aerospace Defense Command, by Helene Cooper of the New York Times during a press call this weekend. And the response it yielded has prompted some tittering.
"I'll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out," VanHerck said. "I haven't ruled out anything."
This is not really a confirmation from the government that these might be alien aircraft. It is a comment from the government that they're not theorizing on a source. It's like asking a literalist whether the sun will rise in the morning; they have no reason to think it won't, but they can't rule out the possibility that it might not.
So he and we can't rule out that these are alien vessels, but it seems unlikely that aliens traveled through space and rolled up to Alaska and western Canada in small inflatable aircraft.
Why are there so many objects showing up right now? It probably seems as though the continent is being inundated with flying objects at the moment. But that's in part because the military has tweaked its radar settings to better detect small, slow objects.
"Radars essentially filter out information based on speed. So you can set various gates. We call them velocity gates that allow us to filter out low-speed clutter," VanHerck explained in the call. "So if you have radars on all the time that we're looking at anything from zero speed up to, say, 100, you would see a lot more information."
Imagine you're a state trooper watching a highway for speeders. You set your radar and plan to pull over anyone going at least 15 miles an hour over the speed limit. But then you get the order to pull over anyone speeding at all. The number of people being cited for speeding will spike — and you'll end up ticketing a lot of people who aren't really the problem.
Isn't it weird to spot so many floating objects, though? Not necessarily, given the analogy above. Observers are seeing a lot of small things that normally they'd have ignored.
"What we're seeing is very, very small objects that produce a very, very low radar cross-section," VanHerck said on the press call when asked about the shape of the three most recently downed objects.
As we've written, there are a lot of things that might fit into that category. Schoolchildren often conducted an experiment in science class in which they send up a weather balloon to capture images of the curvature of the Earth. It's not expensive to do. But those will not be registered flights (the way that the scores of weather balloons released by government observers are) and could be the sorts of things that NORAD is now flagging.
So here's what we know about the objects that have been shot down in the past two weeks.
Object 1. The original spy balloon that triggered all of this.
It was first spotted over the northern part of the Aleutian Islands near Alaska on Jan. 28 at about 60,000 feet and crossed the continental United States before being shot down into the Atlantic Ocean near South Carolina on Feb. 4.
The balloon was large, the size of two or three buses, and supported an array of devices that the government believes were meant to surveil the United States. (The government also insists that its surveillance capabilities were stymied by countermeasures.) The originating point is believed to have been China, which Assistant Secretary of Defense Melissa Dalton said on that same press call had "a basis in intelligence."
Object 2. Spotted by ground radar (it's unclear where) on Feb. 9, the second object was shot down on Feb. 10, with debris landing on sea ice off the northern coast of Alaska. This second object was the size of a small car, according to authorities, though of unclear shape. It's not believed to have carried any equipment as it drifted at about 40,000 feet — a height at which commercial aircraft can operate, contributing to the decision to down it.
Object 3. First seen flying over Alaska on Feb. 10, the third object to be encountered was shot down on Feb. 11, Saturday, over Canada's Yukon territory. It, too, was traveling at about 40,000 feet.
Speaking to reporters, Canadian Defense Miniser Anita Anand indicated that the third object was cylindrical in shape, something that NORAD officials didn't confirm. (VanHerck noted that the objects, drifting with the wind, are being observed by aircraft flying at much higher speeds.) The size of this object and the fourth one matched the second, according to VanHerck.
Object 4. The fourth object was probably spotted late Saturday, a bit north of the U.S.-Canada border. Observers lost contact with that object after it entered U.S. airspace, but its trajectory suggests that it was the same one that was seen Sunday near Wisconsin. It was traveling at about 20,000 feet and was shot down over Lake Huron.
In the press call this weekend, VanHerck admitted another reason there are more reports of flying objects: There is "a heightened alert to look for this information." While this isn't an admission of a political role, it's obvious that the Biden administration hopes to avoid another situation in which a balloon-like object is floating over the country for a week. There's little doubt that the military has been given broader clearance to down aircraft as a result.
It should not be a surprise, then, if there are reports of additional objects being downed in the upcoming days.