Chinese ‘spy balloon’ flies over the United States


Courtesy of Chase Doak via Reuters

The Chinese surveillance balloon as seen from the Earth’s surface.

On February 1, 2023, civilians in Billings, Montana, became some of the first witnesses to quite an unusual sight. In the blue sky above them, a large white object seemed to be floating in the distance. Hysteria soon began to grip Americans nationwide as rumors began to swirl regarding the object. Was it an alien UFO? Was it some sort of clandestine aircraft? 

In reality, the object turned out to be a surveillance balloon that had been making its way across the North American continent for days before it was sighted by the public. Reporters and government officials quickly flocked to gather whatever information they could on the large balloon. Flying at an altitude of around 60,000 feet (for reference, commercial airplanes typically fly at an altitude of ~30,000 feet), the balloon was estimated to be about 200 feet tall. The biggest concern, however, came from the payload attached to the gigantic dirigible. A surveillance camera seemed to jut out from a large solar-panel structure at the bottom of the balloon system. 

In other words, pictures and videos of any territory underneath the balloon could be transmitted to whatever entity was controlling it. US government officials and agencies soon labeled the Chinese government responsible for the balloon—which Chinese officials surprisingly confirmed. However, these officials claimed the balloon was a weather-monitoring device that had been blown off course rather than a piece of espionage technology. 

The idea of a spy-balloon is far from a new idea. During the Cold War, both the US and the USSR used many different forms of aerial technology to gain information on important territorial landmarks such as military sites and governmental facilities. 

With this in mind, many American political figures and civilians began clamoring for the balloon to be felled and secured for investigative purposes. Police departments in some parts of the country had to release statements on social media urging Americans not to attempt to shoot the balloon with personal firearms. The balloon was far out of the reach of any household weapon and these departments raised concerns about bullets falling back to Earth after failing to reach the balloon. 

Many Republican representatives began lambasting President Biden for not using the military to destroy the balloon. However, the balloon would be moving across the mainland US for another three days before reaching the Atlantic Ocean, and destroying it over land would leave a debris field that could stretch for miles on end and possibly destroy property or American lives.

The balloon was finally taken out of the sky in the afternoon of February 4, 2023. This event marked the first time an aircraft had been destroyed over US territory since World War II. Governmental efforts to secure the parts of the balloon have begun and we are likely to hear more about the craft once adequate intelligence has been gathered. 

The most concerning information stemming from this event, however, is the fact that this is the fifth known Chinese surveillance balloon to move over US territory since 2017. Governmental officials were unable to detect previous balloons until after Chinese officials were able to retrieve them. This brings up two obvious and intriguing questions: how many surveillance balloons have there been worldwide and what is the true purpose of these aircraft devices?