An unidentified flying object (UFO) was shot down over Lake Huron in Michigan on Sunday (Feb. 12) — the fourth such object detected over the U.S. in a little over a week.
The flying object, which reports suggest was octagonal in shape and had strings hanging off of it, was first spotted over Montana on Saturday (Feb. 11) and then on Sunday, it migrated across the skies of Wisconsin before an F-16 shot it down over the lake in Michigan, officials said.
Just a day earlier, an American F-22 fighter jet shot down a car-size unidentified flying object (UFO) over Yukon, Canada, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Saturday (Feb. 11).
In that instance, a fighter jet with the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which is run by both the U.S. and Canada, shot down the strange object at the behest of Canada, Trudeau said, according to The New York Times.
"I ordered the take down of an unidentified object that violated Canadian airspace," Trudeau wrote on Twitter.
Canada is now in the process of recovering the wreckage to determine its origin and nature. Reports suggest it was cylindrical in shape and unlikely to be a balloon, according to The New York Times.
This is the third time in a few days that a strange object has been shot down after entering U.S. airspace. Another object was detected entering U.S. airspace around 9 p.m. Alaska time on Thursday (Feb. 9) and the U.S. government subsequently sent a surveillance plane to track it. The object was flying between 20 and 40 mph (32 and 64 km/h) at an altitude used by civilian aircraft.
It criss-crossed land over Alaska before heading out to sea. It was flying toward the North Pole when it was shot down over the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Canada, John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a news briefing on Friday (Feb. 10). Thus far, the U.S. does not see evidence that that object posed a military threat, officials said.
The U.S. is now in the process of recovering the wreckage to determine what that first object was. But harsh, icy conditions mean that recovery efforts, which are being assisted by U.S. Northern Command, Alaska National Guard units, the F.B.I. and local law enforcement, are slow-going, according to the New York Times.
And just a week ago, a Chinese spy balloon was destroyed Feb. 4 after being detected over Idaho in late January. That balloon, which was much larger than the object shot down over Canada this week, was traveling tens of thousands of feet above civilian airspace and was allowed to cross into the Atlantic Ocean before being taken down by an air-to-air-missile.
This strange flying object is just one of many being investigated by the U.S. Department of Defense. In early January, the Pentagon released documents indicating that it was struggling to explain about half of the hundreds of UFO reports it received last year.
Editor's Note: This story was updated to note that the U.S. shot down yet another UFO on Feb. 12. It was also corrected on Feb. 11 to note that the Feb. 9 and Feb. 10 detections were separate incidents. A previous version of the article conflated the two.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.
By Kiley Price
Now that the last Chinese spy balloon was allowed to loiter over major US defence installations without a finger being lifted or a phone call made to its end user and continually uplink intelligence to the PAL in Beijing, without a US response until it could be downed where it couldn't, in toto, be recovered, scientific balloons, weather balloons, balloons released at funerals and weddings, are no longer safe in the air. With the horses long outside the barn, President Joe Biden said that the U.S. is updating its guidelines for monitoring and reacting to unknown aerial objects and aerial objects on obvious spy missions.
Joe Biden has said officials suspect the three subsequent balloons were merely ordinary ones. That could mean ones used for research, weather, recreational or commercial purposes. Officials have been unable to recover any of the remains of those three balloons, and the U.S. military announced it had ended the search for the objects that were shot down near Deadhorse, Alaska, and over Lake Huron on Feb. 10 and 12.
Sophisticated balloons have been flying off both coasts of the United States and across America and loitering over select military bases, mainly in areas usually associated with military training and testing, since at least May of 2021. The transponder-equipped balloons have caught the interest of those monitoring flight tracking software, and have even been spotted from down below in a few instances. Observers have noted their ability to hold station for long periods of time and to seemingly fly against prevailing winds.
he Chinese foreign ministry said Beijing "never violated the territory and airspace of any sovereign country".
It said its senior foreign policy official Wang Yi had discussed the incident with Mr Blinken over the phone, stressing that maintaining communication channels at all levels was important, "especially in dealing with some unexpected situations in a calm and reliable manner".
It added that Beijing "would not accept any groundless conjecture or hype" and accused "some politicians and media in the United States" of using the incident "as a pretext to attack and smear China."
According to US officials, the airship floated over Alaska and Canada before appearing over the US state of Montana, which is home to a number of sensitive nuclear missile and bomber sites.
The incident angered top US officials, with Mr Blinken going so far to say that he had told Beijing the balloon's presence was "a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law" and "an irresponsible act". He called it "unacceptable" and "even more irresponsible coming on the eve of a long-planned visit", while Joe Biden called for calm from his Delaware home.
In all, the episodes opened the eyes of the public to two realities.
China is operating a world-wide military-linked aerial surveillance program that has targeted more than 40 countries, according to the Biden administration, and the US military installations where China has been buying land near or adjacent to primary US military installations. China denies it all.
And there’s a whole lot of other junk floating up there, too.
A look at why there are so many balloons up there — launched for purposes of war, weather, science, business, radio and telecommunications or just goofing around; why they’re getting attention now; and how the U.S. is likely to watch for and respond to inimical slow-moving flying objects going forward.
Some are up there for spying or fighting. Humans have hooked bombs to balloons since at least the 1840s, when winds blew some of the balloon-borne bombs launched against Venice back on the Austrian launchers. In the U.S. Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers floated up over front lines in balloons to assess enemy positions, take primitive photographs and direct artillery fire.
And when it comes to peacetime uses, the cheapness of balloons makes them a favorite aerial platform for all kinds of uses, serious and idle. That includes everything down to “college fraternities with nothing better to do and $10,000,” joked Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
For the National Weather Service, balloons are the main means of above-ground forecasting. Forecasters launch balloons twice daily from nearly 900 locations around the world, including nearly 100 in the United States.
High-altitude balloons also help scientists peer out into space from near the edges of the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA runs a national balloon program office, helping coordinate launches from east Texas and other sites for universities, foreign groups and other research programs. School science classes launch balloons, wildlife watchers launch balloons.
Among hobby balloonists, there are suspicions that a balloon declared missing by the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Brigade was one of the ones shot down by an expensive missile fired from a stealthy F-22, which costs $85,325 per hour to operate, as the publication Aviation Week Network first reported. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the administration was not able to confirm those reports or the source of the balloons, but was investigating them
According to a recently published textbook titled “Stratospheric Balloons: Science and Commerce at the Edge of Space” by Manfred von Ehrenfried, the Thunderhead balloon system is steerable and can be flown individually or in constellations. The Thunderhead is a super-pressure balloon (SPB) with a gondola that contains a payload, flight system, and solar panels. The balloon itself is pumpkin-shaped and composed of polyethylene. The system has two configurations: the Thunderhead 200 SPB with a 64,000 cubic foot volume, or the 400 SPB with a 400,000 cubic foot volume. The 200 SPB has a maximum altitude of 50,000 to 60,000 feet, while the 400 SPB has a maximum altitude of up to 92,000 feet, approaching the edge of space.
Within the main balloon, there is a smaller balloon referred to as a “ballonet.” The ballonet acts as a ballast, and functions as the central component of the steering system. Air is introduced into the ballonet using a pump, permitting the balloon to modify its weight to ascend or descend. Operators cannot directly control the course or speed, but the altitude changes, along with real-time weather awareness, allow the balloon to leverage wind patterns at different altitudes in order to navigate, including staying in a particular area for a long period of time. According to von Ehrenfried, flight times can exceed 30 days.
Federal Communications Commissions records reflect an approved license for one of Raven Aerostar’s subsidiaries, Aerostar Technical Solutions, to fly balloons within a two hundred-mile radius around Vista, California from May 9th until May 30th this year.
The company appears to have aggressively pursued its balloon testing in recent years, with experimental radio license applications dating back until at least February 2020. Balloon tests had previously been approved and conducted across the Southeast and Southwest. For example, residents of Jackson, Mississippi may have noticed a meandering balloon track around May 4th this year.
During the same period of time, the company has been conducting tests of its new solid-state X-band radar technology platform, the HiPointer 100. Testing appears to be taking place near Norfolk, Virginia with an experimental license approved from April 5 until October 2, 2021. Unlike these roaming balloon tests, the HiPointer 100 testing appears to be constrained to within about three miles of the Norfolk naval facility, headquarters of the US Atlantic fleet.
At least some of the balloon trials have been associated with defense technology contracts. FCC records reflect authorization for balloon flights around Stanley, New Mexico until December 1, 2021. Supplemental application materials divulge that the testing involves work under Defense Technical Information Contract FA8075-14-D-D0014. The contract identification appears to be a typo of FA8075-14-D-00014, a $1.8 billion dollar research contract held by Alion Science and Technology Corporation.
The broader contract includes projects like this one, focused on “unmanned aircraft systems for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting and precision strike capabilities for naval air systems command persistent maritime UAS program office.”
Raven Aerostar itself celebrated a five-year multiple-award contract from Naval Sea Command Systems (NAVSEA) in February of last year. The work cited involves the “Unmanned Vessel market” and their “Perception Radar solution,” according to the General Manager of Aerostar Technical Solutions, Michael Schwartz.
The company has a rich history of working in the defense and intelligence realm. In 2011, engineers associated with the current balloon program were presented with awards from the Naval Air Warfare Center for its work in supporting intelligence efforts in Afghanistan. Specifically, the award cited the company’s work on the Persistent Ground Surveillance System (PGSS), which is designed to monitor insurgent activity with high persistence balloons.
Raven Aerostar also notably carried out tests involving balloons carrying ISR systems at altitudes of around 65,000 feet over six states in 2019. U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) sponsored that work as part of an experiment to evaluate whether this could a useful additional tool for supporting counter-narcotics and disaster response operations, along with more general intelligence collection requirements.
Although often overlooked, balloons have seen a modern resurgence as a reconnaissance and communications platform in recent years, with intense interest from more than one service branch. The War Zone previously reported on the Army’s plans to leverage balloons that can deploy drone swarms from high altitudes and penetrate contested airspace for extended periods of time while carrying radars, electronic warfare.electronic countermeasures and electronic intelligence systems, networking relays, and other payloads as a key future operational concept.
Intriguingly, the balloons currently deployed have been launched from or are lingering in areas that have come to be known as drone incursion hotspots involving the Navy. The balloons off the coast of Southern California have largely operated in the vicinity of San Clemente Island. In 2019, a still-unidentified group of drones harassed Navy vesselsaround that area over the course of several days.
On the east coast, some of the balloons appear to have been lingering near a naval warning area where a number of aviation safety incidents involving unusual aircraft were reported over much of the last decade.
Despite the massive political effect these incidents have had on the world, spy balloons are not a new surveillance tactic. The emergence of the Chinese spy balloon flap has upset the political world on a global scale. Although it’s not exactly clear what the future consequences of this event will be, it’s clear that this event has changed the current world political landscape as we know it. And we have become warier of our own peaceful balloons.