What We Know About Three Mystery Objects The U.S. Shot Down—And What We Don't : Consider This from NPR A total of four high-flying, balloon-like objects have been shot down by US fighter jets this month. Officials have still not said where three of them came from.

The United States claims the first one was a Chinese surveillance balloon, which China denies. But American officials have made no definitive statement as to what the other three could be, nor has anyone come forward to claim ownership.

NPR correspondents Scott Detrow and Greg Myre share what they've learned about the mysterious flying objects.

And Timothy Heath, a senior researcher at the Rand Corporation, talks about the various ways governments use high-altitude balloons.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

What We Know About Three Mystery Objects The U.S. Shot Down—And What We Don't

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After a U.S. fighter jet took down a suspected Chinese spy balloon earlier this month, it seemed that that was that. But it wasn't. Since then, U.S. fighter jets have shot down three more slow-moving objects flying high above North America. One in Alaska...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Pentagon officials say it was shot down after being deemed a threat to the safety of civilian flights.

SHAPIRO: ...One in the Yukon in Canada's north...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Hour, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ordered the military to shoot down an unknown object flying...

SHAPIRO: ...And one over Lake Huron just this past Sunday.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...The F-16 fighter that shot down the object over Lake Huron missed on the first try, but a second missile brought it down.

SHAPIRO: And while the U.S. government has said the first object was a Chinese surveillance balloon, it's still not saying what the other three were.


JOHN KIRBY: Because we have not yet been able to definitively assess what these most recent objects are, we acted out of an abundance of caution to protect the security - our security, our interest and flight safety.

SHAPIRO: National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at a press conference that the U.S. has not found any evidence to connect those more recent objects to China's balloon surveillance program. Kirby suggested they may have been operated privately for commercial or research purposes. But so far, no one stepped forward to claim ownership. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre made this point.


KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: There is no - again, no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.

SHAPIRO: OK, so E.T. is not involved. But there are still many other unanswered questions about these mysterious flying objects.

SUSAN COLLINS: Why did the administration wait for eight days to shoot down a known object that was clearly a very large, Chinese surveillance balloon, and yet acted very quickly to take down three unidentified objects that we still don't know the origin of, nor the purpose?

SHAPIRO: That's Maine Senator Susan Collins, a Republican who serves on the intelligence committee. She spoke to NPR after senators were briefed on the three objects. Collins said although information is still being collected, she doesn't think the Biden administration has been transparent enough.

COLLINS: We members of Congress should not first have learned about the Chinese surveillance balloon as the result of some of Senator Tester's and Senator Daines' constituents in Montana spotting it in the sky and taking pictures of it.

SHAPIRO: Collins also said she expects Congress to allocate money so the military can better track these kinds of flying objects. CONSIDER THIS - the Biden administration is being judicious about what it shares after shooting down four flying objects in 10 days. We'll review what we know and what we don't in a moment.


SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Wednesday, February 15.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The White House held a press conference this week to talk about the unidentified flying objects. My colleague Ailsa Chang spoke with NPR's Scott Detrow and Greg Myre about what they learned.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Other than they're not aliens. Well, yes. So White House spokesman John Kirby kept stressing that the U.S. government does not have the answers yet to the really big questions here - who launched these objects and what these objects were doing in the skies? And Kirby said the government is working to recover debris to try and find out, and he says in all three recent cases, the U.S. took the same steps.


KIRBY: We assessed whether they posed any kinetic threat to people on the ground. They did not. We assessed whether they were sending any communications signals. We detected none. We looked to see whether they were maneuvering or had any propulsion capabilities. We saw no signs of that. And we made sure to determine whether or not they were manned. They were not.

DETROW: But he said in each case, the U.S. could not rule out surveillance capabilities, so the president ordered them shot down.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: OK. But, Greg, why do there seem to be so many of these mysterious things floating in the sky all of a sudden?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Yeah. Ailsa, I think it's two things. First, the discovery of the Chinese spy balloon was just so unusual, so public. You know, spying is not supposed to be public.

CHANG: Right.

MYRE: And this put the national security community on high alert, and when you start looking for something, you often tend to find more of it. And the second thing is the Air Force says it has changed the parameters on its radar. The filters were looking for things like missiles and jet planes, not slow-moving balloons at a high altitude. So the parameters are - were set wider and - think of it like an email filter. The U.S. was looking for the important stuff, possible threats, and other stuff was going to junk mail. When the Chinese balloon was uncovered, the U.S. went back, looked at old junk mail. It saw the Chinese balloons had come several times in recent years. And then in the past week, the U.S. has picked up other slow-moving objects that it couldn't ID, and it shot them down.

CHANG: OK. So wading through this junk mail, I mean, besides the potential for surveillance, how are they deciding, like, what to shoot down and what not to shoot down?

MYRE: So the Air Force is authorized to take immediate action and shoot something down if there is a hostile action or intent. But as Scott was saying - or we just heard, that really wasn't the case. So the information was taken, worked its way up the chain. President Biden did make the decision to shoot it down basically, it seems, because these objects were seen as a possible risk to civilian aircraft. A couple were around 40,000 feet. Another was at 20,000 feet. So it could have gotten in the way of other aircraft. We still don't know if it belonged to a state, a private company or an academic institution, for example.

CHANG: OK. But, Scott, I'm curious because I know that the prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, spoke about all of this. Why haven't we heard from President Biden yet?

DETROW: I mean, it's a great question. President Biden did not have any public events. There have been a lot of calls for explanation on all of this. Marco Rubio, who's the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, tweeted this morning - in its 65-year history, NORAD never shot down an aircraft over U.S. airspace. Over the 10 days, they have shot down one balloon and three objects. Americans need to hear directly about this from their president. So Biden hasn't spoken about this. The administration has been briefing lawmakers. And we have - you know, as you heard, we got a lot of details from the White House, if not the president specifically. I was struck by one thing - that Kirby kept contrasting how much the U.S. knew about that initial spy balloon versus how much the U.S. doesn't know about these last three objects, even noting several different times that there might be a chance here that some of these came from commercial or research operations. It's just very unclear right now.

CHANG: OK. Well, in the time that we have left, I'd like to get a couple of quick parting thoughts from each of you. What will you be watching for? Are we still holding out hope for aliens, Greg?

MYRE: Well, I wouldn't hold your breath.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MYRE: We should note - China and the U.S. have massive, sophisticated espionage programs. They're constantly spying on each other. And many in the national security community see the spy balloon as an important wake-up call because it really put the focus on Chinese spying, and they feel there needs to be more of this. That said, many see the balloon program in China as relatively low-level activity, just a small part of these Chinese efforts that target the U.S. government and military secrets.

CHANG: Scott?

DETROW: I mean, I'm always holding out hope for aliens. But seriously, Biden and the White House talk so much about managed competition with China, not conflict. Now, with U.S. fighter jets shooting objects out of the sky, I think there's a real threat that relations veer in the direction of conflict. So how does this de-escalate? That's my big question.


SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Detrow and Greg Myre. After President Biden ordered the Pentagon to shoot down the Chinese balloon, China responded by claiming that the U.S. had flown American spy balloons into Chinese airspace without Beijing's permission more than 10 times over the last year. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NPR this.

ANTONY BLINKEN: We do not send spy balloons over China. Period.

SHAPIRO: China continues to deny that the balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast was used for spying. Beijing claims the device collected weather data. And as we mentioned, no one has claimed the other three objects the U.S. has shot down since.

BLINKEN: We cannot rule out the possibility that these devices could have been launched by private actors, perhaps weather-monitoring organizations or others.

SHAPIRO: Timothy Heath is a senior researcher on defense and international issues for the RAND Corporation.

TIMOTHY HEATH: It's worth bearing in mind that balloons are difficult to control and navigate. At the end of the day, they are at the mercy of winds, and there's very limited capability to steer these devices once they go up into the atmosphere.

SHAPIRO: Heath spoke with my colleague A Martínez about the various ways governments can use high-altitude balloons.

HEATH: Well, balloons have been used for law enforcement, surveillance purposes. The U.S. government has used balloons to monitor the border - the southern border with Mexico. In the past, the U.S. government has deployed balloons to support law enforcement operations to track drug traffickers in our country. And the U.S. military has invested in research about using balloons to conduct surveillance, intelligence collection and potentially to move small amounts of cargo across vast distances. The U.S. military also deployed balloons to support targeting and reconnaissance in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: When it comes to cargo, what kinds of things could they use them to transport?

HEATH: You can move small amounts of military equipment across vast distances. This is an idea that is being explored but currently has not been operationalized by the U.S. military.

MARTÍNEZ: And when it comes to China's balloon program, what are they typically using them for?

HEATH: China has used balloons for domestic surveillance. They've used them to monitor their borders. And they have apparently deployed large numbers of balloons to carry out intelligence collections and surveillance in countries around the world.

MARTÍNEZ: Why would they use balloons instead of, say, satellites?

HEATH: First off, they're cheap and can be quickly deployed. Second, they are often difficult to detect because they have little metal in them. You really have to have radars tuned to detect them in order to see them. Another reason that balloons can be favored over satellites is they are unpredictable. They follow weather patterns and have limited steering. And in addition to their low observable status, they can be harder to detect and anticipate compared to satellites, which follow a very predictable orbital path. Another advantage of balloons over satellites is that balloons can dwell over a period of time over a certain location and actually get closer to what you want to observe compared to a satellite.

MARTÍNEZ: Why wouldn't someone know that their device was captured or destroyed? Is that something that typically would not be surprising, that no one would say, hey, that's mine?

HEATH: Yes. If it was a private actor, these objects clearly have some monetary value and probably represented at least some degree of investment. So a private actor would have a good incentive to try to claim ownership and try to recover the objects and whatever information it may have collected.

SHAPIRO: That was Timothy Heath of the RAND Corporation speaking with NPR's A Martínez.



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