Why Are There Suddenly So Many Unidentified Objects Over U.S. Airspace?
We promise it’s not aliens.
It’s not aliens, but what the heck is going on?
In the wake of the Chinese surveillance balloon that flew across continental North America in early February, the U.S. and Canada have experienced a sudden flurry of unidentified flying objects (or unidentified aerial phenomena, if you prefer) in their airspace.
These objects appeared in rapid succession over the weekend, with radar detecting one object almost as soon as the last one had been shot down. It’s a bizarre situation that has prompted the White House Press Secretary and leading Air Force generals to publicly field questions about aliens in a much more serious tone than usual.
Here’s everything you need to know about the whole spy balloon/UFO situation — at least to the extent that anyone currently knows anything.
How many unidentified objects have been shot down so far?
U.S. military aircraft have shot down four objects in American and Canadian airspace in the past week, starting with the Chinese surveillance balloon on February 4. Three smaller, still-unidentified objects followed in rapid succession over the past weekend:
- One over the frozen Bering Sea near Deadhorse, Alaska on February 10 (radar first detected it on February 9)
- Another over Canada’s Yukon territory on February 11 (radar first detected it late on February 10)
- The last over Lake Huron on February 12 (radar first detected it on the evening of February 11)
What are these objects? Where did they come from?
Several representatives of the White House and the U.S. military said over the weekend that they don’t know yet where these unidentified objects came from or why they were flying over the U.S. and Canada. A White House spokesperson told reporters over the weekend that none of the three most recent objects appeared to be transmitting electronic signals.
China’s foreign ministry claims not to know anything about the most recent trio of objects, and it still insists that the large balloon shot down on February 4 was on a meteorological research mission (longtime UAP aficionados will recognize the familiar “it was a weather balloon” refrain).
At the moment, it’s not even clear whether any of the three most recent objects was carrying a payload, such as surveillance gear or scientific instruments; whether they were balloons or had rigid frames; or whether they had engines or simply floated — although reports from the fighter aircraft that intercepted them reported that they moved in the speed and direction of the wind.
“We’re calling them objects, not balloons, for a reason,” said U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD, a joint U.S.-Canadian command also known for its annual tracking of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve) told reporters over the weekend.
However, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters that he believes the objects shot down over Yukon and Alaska were balloons, Reuters reports.
What did the unidentified objects look like?
The Chinese surveillance balloon that traversed the U.S. during the first few days of February before an F-22 shot it down over the Atlantic Ocean was a large white sphere, about 200 feet tall, with a payload of surveillance instruments and solar panels hanging beneath it. Several photos of that first balloon have been released, which quickly became fodder for memes.
The most recent trio of unidentified objects were all much smaller than the big white balloon; reports describe the one shot down over Alaska on February 10 as about the size of a small car. But that seems to be where the similarities end, as all three objects reportedly had different shapes.
- Fighter pilots who intercepted the February 10 object said it looked nothing like an airplane (which of course narrows things down considerably). The object clearly had no crew and no ability to maneuver.
- The February 11 object was reportedly cylindrical but also, according to Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand, “similar in appearance” to the large balloon shot down on February 4, Reuters reported — which seems to contradict a White House spokesperson’s statement that the objects “did not closely resemble” the Chinese balloon. Make of that what you will.
- And the February 12 object, shot down over Lake Huron, is described as hexagonal with strings dangling from its underside — but no payload attached to them.
“We will not definitively characterize them until we can recover the debris, which we are working on,” a White House spokesperson said at a press conference over the weekend.
Have any of the unidentified objects been recovered yet?
U.S. Navy recovery crews spent the weekend trying to recover as much of the Chinese balloon as possible from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean — an effort that included divers and autonomous underwater vehicles.
Recovery efforts are also underway for the February 10 (Alaska) and February 11 (Yukon) objects, with Canadian agencies spearheading the effort within their own borders. But both of those efforts have to contend with harsh winter weather in the Bering Sea and in far northwestern Canada, respectively.
Were the balloons a threat?
U.S. and Canadian officials both emphasized that none of the three unidentified objects — or the Chinese surveillance balloon that kicked off this whole saga — were a threat to people on the ground. And none of the objects appeared to take any hostile action toward any of the aircraft that intercepted them. The trio of smaller objects over the weekend were a potential threat to air traffic, however, just by being there.
Two of the objects were flying at about 40,000 feet, and the most recent one was at 20,000 feet; commercial airliners tend to cruise at around 30,000 feet. That’s why U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave the order to shoot these objects down, lest they bump into a passing airplane and cause a deadly accident.
On the other hand, concern for the safety of people on the ground led the Biden administration to stay its hand and let the Chinese balloon keep flying until it was safely over the Atlantic. Officials expressed concern that falling debris might injure people or property on the ground if they took the balloon down over land.
Are we at war now?
The Chinese balloon did cause a major international incident, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a planned visit to Beijing. And in the wake of this weekend’s flurry of smaller unidentified objects, Trudeau described a “very serious situation.” None of that adds up to an impending military conflict, however.
Are these objects UFOs? Are they aliens?
“There is no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters over the weekend. An anonymous Department of Defense source told Reuters pretty much the same thing — after VanHerck said during Sunday’s press conference that he wasn’t ruling anything out.
But technically these objects are — or were, since they’re no longer flying — UFOs, or unidentified flying objects. But that just comes from the fact that they haven’t, yet, publicly been identified.
Why are there suddenly so many unidentified objects over U.S. airspace?
The saga of the Chinese spy balloon in early February attracted a lot of attention from members of the public, elected officials, and the military. In response, Department of Defense representatives say they’ve adjusted their radar systems, which typically look for fast-moving targets like aircraft and missiles, to also look for slower, smaller objects like balloons. So part of the answer is that we’re suddenly seeing so many of these objects because we’re actually looking for them.
But there may also be some connection between the most recent trio of unidentified objects. During a press conference in Yukon territory, Trudeau told reporters “Obviously, there is some sort of pattern in there — the fact that we are seeing this in a significant degree over the past week is a cause for interest and close attention.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese spy balloon shot down on February 4 wasn’t the first of its kind to penetrate U.S. airspace or fly over secretive military installations; at least four other spy balloons have flown over the U.S. (and at least 40 other countries, lest we start thinking we’re special) in the last four years, the New York Times reports. The one that made headlines in early February just happened to be the first one to get caught; the other four turned up in a review of archived radar data.
And with NASA and the Department of Defense already looking more seriously into decades of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) reports, recent events may add new urgency to that process — not because officials think it’s aliens, but because they’re realizing how much Earth-based surveillance activity in U.S. and Canadian airspace they may have missed.