What We Know About The Suspected Chinese Spy Balloon Flying Over United States
Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The United States is tracking a high-flying, suspected Chinese spy balloon over the lower 48 states.

Here is what we know so far:

Where is it?

The Pentagon first acknowledged the suspected reconnaissance balloon on Thursday as it was spotted over Billings, Montana, after it flew over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and through Canada, according to NBC News.

On Friday, the Pentagon said the balloon was above the central continental United States, moving eastward, and could be over the United States for a few more days. Its exact whereabouts were unclear as of early Friday afternoon, however there were some indications that it could be somewhere over northeast Kansas or Missouri. Kansas Governor Laura Kelly tweeted that she had “received reports of the suspected Chinese spy balloon” over the northeastern part of her state Friday afternoon and had “reached out to the White House” about taking precautions.

The suspected surveillance balloon is expected to cross into central and southern Missouri Saturday morning, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) HYSPLIT model, a system that projects air parcel trajectories, Newsweek reported. Other predictions show that the balloon could travel over Kentucky, Tennessee, and toward the Carolinas in the coming days.

What is it?

China’s government claimed on Friday the balloon is a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes.” Beijing claimed the balloon essentially got blown off course.

The Pentagon rejected this explanation on Friday, describing the balloon as being a “surveillance balloon” that “violated U.S. airspace and international law,” per CNN.

Is the balloon a threat?

Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder says the balloon currently does not “present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”

He added that the balloon was “traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the balloon is a “clear violation” of U.S. sovereignty and that the incident is an “irresponsible act” by China. “The first step is to get the surveillance aircraft out of our airspace,” he added.

What could the balloon be looking for?

Multiple reports have noted the suspected spy balloon was spotted near a base in Montana that houses 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

A senior defense official told The Wall Street Journal the U.S. government was taking steps to shield sensitive sites while stressing such a balloon is believed to offer China “limited additive value” beyond what it could gather from satellites.

What does the balloon look like?

KSVI-TV, a news station in Montana, published a photo taken by Megan Nielsen from the ground in the state. It shows what appears to be a device attached to a white balloon.

Is the balloon being controlled?

Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said on Friday the balloon is at about 60,000 feet in the air and is “maneuverable.”

He did not share any more details on how it could be controlled, but said the U.S. is communicating with China.

Why not shoot it down?

The U.S. has determined that shooting down the balloon could endanger people on the ground, according to a senior defense official.

“President Biden was briefed and asked for military options. Secretary [Lloyd] Austin convened senior DOD leadership yesterday, even as he was on the road in the Philippines,” the official said during a briefing Thursday, according to Newsweek.

“It was the strong recommendation by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, and the commander of NORTHCOM, General VanHerck, not to take kinetic action due to the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field,” the official added.

Ryder told reporters on Friday: “In terms of the size, I’m not able to get into the specifics other than to say that it is big enough that, again, in reviewing our approach, we do recognize that any potential debris field would be significant and potentially cause civilian injuries or deaths, or significant property damage.”

Still, there are those who are demanding the balloon be shot down. “I’d pull the trigger if they let me,” tweeted Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT).

Are there more of them?

Canada’s military said it is monitoring a “potential second incident,” and the country’s intelligence agencies are in contact with their U.S. counterparts, per the Toronto Star.

Ryder, over at the Pentagon, told reporters on Friday the U.S. is tracking one balloon and referred questions about a possible second balloon to the Canadian government.

Broadly speaking, the Pentagon says: “Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years.”

What is the fallout from this balloon controversy?

Blinken postponed a planned trip to China this weekend. “I told [Central Foreign Affairs Office] Director Wang [Yi] that the United States remains committed to diplomatic engagement with China and that I plan to visit Beijing when conditions allow. In the meantime, the United States will continue to maintain open lines of communication with China, including to address this ongoing incident,” Blinken said.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), demanded briefings from the Biden administration.

The United Nations called on the U.S. and China to “do whatever they can to lower tensions,” according to CNN.

This is a developing news story; check back in for updates.

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