Four flying objects have been shot down over the United States and Canada since February 4. The first, a 200-foot-tall balloon carrying an equipment-laden gondola the size of a regional airliner, was downed by a U.S. fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina. Identified as a Chinese “spycraft”, it is suspected of being used to collect data on the country’s military sites and to intercept communications devices, despite Beijing’s initial statement that it was merely a weather monitoring device that had blown off course.
As our chart shows, three more objects have since been detected and destroyed. These have all been smaller than the giant balloon and are reported to have different characteristics. According to officials, the object on Feb 10 flew without any kind of propulsion or control system, while the object on Feb 11 was described as cylindrical in shape and about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. The fourth object, shot down yesterday over Lake Huron, was reportedly octagonal and had strings attached to it. It is currently unknown where the latest three objects originated from or what they were designed to do.
Conflicting reports and speculation over the mysterious objects have created some confusion over the past 10 days. Where U.S. Senate majority leader Charles Schumer said the second and third objects were likely also balloons, the U.S. Defense Department said shortly afterwards that they did not resemble the Chinese aircraft.
The series of incidents has also raised the question of whether more objects are indeed flying over the U.S. than usual, or whether more are simply being identified and scrutinized, since the U.S. air defense altered their radar systems after the balloon's detection to also detect smaller and slower-moving objects. Either way, regardless of the intention behind their creation, having objects flying at altitude is a clear flight hazard.
Meanwhile, Taiwanese sources have told the Financial Times that there have been multiple sightings of military balloons in the island’s airspace in recent years. This is in line with the U.S.’ belief that the balloon was part of a larger fleet, thought to have crossed over more than 40 countries on five continents.
Read more about the balloon’s journey here.