Guess What’s Back? Mystery Balloon Spotted: Are Foreign Snoopers Tracking the U.S.?

jhonny marcell oportus /
jhonny marcell oportus /

Oh no, here we go again with the mysterious high-altitude balloon in American airspace. American authorities are monitoring an unidentified high-altitude balloon traversing the nation’s airspace. The balloon was sighted over Colorado and is now moving eastward, according to CBS, which cited anonymous sources familiar with the situation.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) have acknowledged finding a small balloon flying between 43,000 and 45,000 feet. Per their statement, NORAD fighters intercepted the balloon over Utah, assessing it as non-maneuverable and not a threat to national security. NORAD has vowed to keep an eye on the balloon, while the FAA has deemed it safe for air traffic. Coordination between NORAD and the FAA continues to prioritize flight safety. The “small balloon” was allowed to continue to fly above the U.S. after being determined not to pose a national security threat, NORAD said.

A U.S. official described the balloon as 50 feet tall and carrying a payload the size of a two-foot cube. The official said it is not known what the payload might be carrying. The source said the aircraft was made of a type of polyester film called Mylar, with a small cube-shaped box suspended beneath it.

“After yesterday’s fighter intercepts, and in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration, the North American Aerospace Defense Command monitored the likely hobby balloon via ground radars until it left U.S. airspace overnight,” NORAD said in a statement on Saturday.

This is reminiscent of an alarming incident that occurred slightly more than a year ago; a Chinese spy balloon was spotted hovering over American skies. The balloon was closely monitored as it traversed across several states before being intercepted by U.S. fighters. The showdown occurred over U.S. territorial waters in the vicinity of South Carolina. It raised serious concerns about Chinese espionage activities on U.S. soil and sparked a diplomatic row. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a trip to China, calling the airship’s presence an “irresponsible act.”

Last year’s episode had Congress criticizing the Pentagon for tracking a spy balloon for too long before shooting it down, as well as allowing it to fly near military installations. The Pentagon refuted claims that the balloon had transmitted sensitive information to China.

Chinese officials denied it was conducting surveillance, insisting the balloon aimed to collect weather data and it had merely veered off course due to high winds. Following that episode, U.S. fighter jets started taking quicker action in similar circumstances, shooting down three smaller airborne objects over Canada, Lake Huron, and Alaska.

Furthermore, the Biden administration refuted allegations made in December of the previous year that there had been attempts to hide the balloon’s journey.

However, it pays to be cautious because China has been ramping up its use of balloons. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense detected several balloons flying over the island earlier this year. The spy balloons flew into Taiwanese airspace almost daily before and after Taiwan’s presidential elections, part of what analysts see as a new effort to weaken Taiwanese independence. The dispatch of such balloons, which generally disappear into the Pacific, has been on the rise and appears to be a form of aggression.

It remains unclear whether the balloons have an explicit military function. These actions appear to be part of a campaign of harassment against the self-governed island, which China has threatened to reclaim through force, if necessary. According to Kristen Gunness, a senior research scientist at the RAND Corporation, China’s aerial actions are an “extension” of its air and maritime pressure campaigns and a “signal” about increased surveillance.” Still, she argued the tension is unlikely to escalate any further.