The U.S. Department of Defense shot down some kind of Chinese aircraft on Saturday, sparking a heated, partisan debate over whether the U.S. is too soft on balloons.
You may have seen the footage of the tiny white speck as it traversed the country—but what exactly do we know about the balloon itself?
Not a whole lot, so far!
Because the debris is still being hauled out of the ocean—the U.S. Navy released the first up-close photos of pieces of the balloon being retrieved on Tuesday. Fragments of the balloon landed across 7 miles of water, and fell up to 47 feet deep.
The Defense Department has said the recovery is expected to be pretty easy, since the bulk of the debris fell into mostly shallow waters. All the collected debris will be analyzed by defense officials to see if there is any intelligence material of value while U.S. Navy vessels and the Coast Guard are protecting the perimeter, but officials don’t know how long the entire process will take.
It was first spotted in January
The balloon was spotted for the first time on Jan. 28 when it entered U.S. airspace near the Aleutian Islands, according to the Defense Department. It then floated over to Alaska, into Canada, and back into the U.S. over Idaho over the course of one week. (President Biden said that he ordered it to be shot down when he was briefed about it on Feb. 1, but national security officials advised him to wait until it was over water).
It was a big-ass balloon
Coming in at over 200 feet tall, the Chinese balloon was massive. In a press briefing, Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said the payload attached to the balloon weighed a couple thousand pounds, comparing it to a regional jetliner.
It was flying at about 60,000 feet when it was shot down
On Saturday, Feb. 4, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gave his approval for the balloon to be shot down. The mission was completed at about 2:40 pm, while the balloon was between 60,000 and 65,000 feet high in the air off the coast of South Carolina. The Defense Department said the delay stemmed from wanting to avoid harming any Americans who might be on the ground.
Senior defense officials said the takedown was necessary because the balloon was intruding on U.S. airspace for multiple days and “an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.”
Fighter jets were used
A group of U.S. military fighter jets were deployed to take the balloon down from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. A single missile into the balloon successfully deflated it.
The balloon might have had surveillance equipment
Senior defense officials are saying the balloon was “purposefully” pushed to travel over the U.S. and Canada and that they are confident it was actually a surveillance device that was “seeking to monitor sensitive military sites.”
Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told NBC that the balloon’s path aligned with where sensitive U.S. missile defense sites, weapons infrastructure, and nuclear weapon sites are located—like those in Montana, Nebraska, and Missouri. But NBC says the balloon didn’t make it to all of the country’s known nuclear arsenals.
China insists it was just a weather balloon
Chinese officials have stood by their claim that the balloon was a “runaway weather balloon” that simply blew off course. They’ve accused the U.S. of overreacting and even said the force used to take down their balloon was “a serious violation of international practice,” according to the Washington Post.
The Defense Department isn’t buying it, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a scheduled trip to Beijing because of the incident. (China’s reaction, meanwhile, was basically: What trip?)
This isn’t the first Chinese balloon spotted in the U.S.
The Defense Department said Chinese balloons traveled through the U.S. at least three times under former president Donald Trump. Those balloons weren’t discovered until after President Joe Biden took office, an unnamed official told CNN.
The U.S. says China is using these balloons in other countries, too
A defense official told reporters that Chinese balloons have been spotted over other countries in recent years, including in East Asia, South Asia, and Europe.