After shooting down a Chinese spy balloon the US military has downed another three unidentified flying objects. What is going on and are any of them from space?
It all began with a giant white balloon, drifting across the sky above America…
“Okay so that’s the moon… But what the heck is that? That’s not the sun? And according to my little planet guide, that’s not a planet.”MSNBC
As the days went by, more people across the US looked up and spotted the bright white orb hovering above them…
“This thing is up in the sky. And I have no idea what it is… It’s been there, stationary, for the last thirty minutes…”FOX News
It was like something out of science fiction: a helium-filled balloon – the size of three school buses – with two rows of solar panels tethered to the base. All clearly visible from the ground, despite being at least 80,000 feet up in the air – well above where commercial aircraft fly.
The US government was quick to publicly identify it as being from China. The Chinese Communist Party claimed it was a device designed to monitor the weather, which had been blown off course, but the US said it was a spy balloon.
So three days after it was first spotted and after facing criticism from within his own Democratic Party for not acting quickly enough, US President Joe Biden gave the order to shoot it down…
“I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down as possible, and they did that when it got over the sea.”Joe Biden
American forces increased the sensitivity of their radars and in the days that followed they spotted more unidentified objects in the skies above the US and Canada. They too were blown out of the sky.
“They have not described them yet as a balloon. Efforts are underway to retrieve the wreckage to identify exactly what they are and where they came from.”Bloomberg
The US government has been tight-lipped about the details of these latest devices, but saying very little left space for speculation that they could be alien. Something a top American general refused to deny in a briefing to journalists…
“I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven’t ruled out anything.”General Glen VanHerck
The White House quickly rowed back…
“There is no, again no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns… I loved ET the movie, but I’m just going to leave it there.”White House Spokesperson
What we do know is that the three new objects were different from the first Chinese spy balloon: they were much smaller – the size of a car; one was octagonal and all were floating thousands of metres lower, which means that they could have posed a threat to commercial aircraft.
So why is Washington only just waking up to this new form of spying?
Speculation about whether the latest objects could be from space conjured up images of films like ET or Mars Attacks, but the reality is more serious.
The initial discovery and shooting down of a Chinese balloon over the US has escalated tensions between two superpowers here on earth.
Before this happened relations between China and the United States were the worst they’ve been in decades.
America’s top diplomat, Antony Blinken, had been due to fly to Beijing to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping. It would have been a landmark summit, but the discovery of the Chinese spy balloon meant the White House abruptly cancelled his visit.
This greatly angered the Chinese government who continued to maintain that the balloon was a weather monitoring device which had blown off course. However, the Americans have since found concrete evidence of spyware amongst the debris of the shot-down balloon.
The White House has claimed that balloon flights have been identified in 40 countries across five continents, and they were also happening during Donald Trump’s presidency.
But a Chinese diplomat said they would not need to use such basic technology…
“China has much more sophisticated satellies, which are completely mapping every inch of US land. So in a sense, there is no need for the Chinese government or the military to use a balloon to check out what the situation inside the United States is.”The World at One
So why would a country like China, with access to advanced technology like satellites, resort to using balloons?
Spy balloons were first used by the French in the 1700s, but their simplicity makes them useful for intelligence gathering today.
Releasing a spy balloon is much cheaper than building and launching a satellite. Balloons can remain static in the air for much longer, so can scan a territory much more thoroughly from a lower altitude which makes the resolution of the images they capture clearer.
They also float in the stratosphere, a band of the Earth’s atmosphere which sits just below the level where satellites are in orbit. In recent years Earth’s orbit has become more and more congested with satellites, and counter-satellite technology is increasingly sophisticated.
So for governments like China wanting to evade scrutiny, the stratosphere is the newest battle ground to exploit.
Leaders from all over the world are gathering to discuss this new threat, and the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has vowed to do ‘whatever it takes’ to protect British airspace.
The discovery of their spy balloon has revealed Beijing’s latest attempt to shape the international order.
This episode was written and mixed by Rebecca Moore.