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DOD: high-altitude object over Western U.S. is a hobbyist balloon

Posted at 10:21 AM, Feb 24, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-24 12:37:58-05

The small, high-altitude balloon being tracked by the U.S. is actually a hobbyist balloon, a Defense department official told CBS News on Saturday. CBS News first reported that the military was tracking the balloon as it traversed the Western U.S. earlier in the day. NORAD, the military command responsible for air defense over the U.S. and Canada, later confirmed it had detected the object and said it was floating between 43,000 and 45,000 feet. Its presence prompted enough concern that the command sent aircraft to investigate.



"The balloon was intercepted by NORAD fighters over Utah, who determined it was not maneuverable and did not present a threat to national security. NORAD will continue to track and monitor the balloon," NORAD said in a statement. "The FAA also determined the balloon posed no hazard to flight safety."

One U.S. official told CBS News the balloon was expected to be over Georgia by Friday night. The official said the balloon appeared to be made of Mylar and had a small cube-shaped box, about two feet long on each side, hanging below it. Its origins and purpose remain unknown.

The developments come one year after tensions between the U.S. and China ratcheted to new heights after a Chinese balloon carrying sophisticated spying equipment flew over the continental U.S. for several days.

The Chinese foreign ministry claimed that the balloon was meant to collect weather data and had "deviated far from its planned course" due to high winds. The U.S. military ultimately shot it down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, 2023, and recovered the wreckage.

The spy balloon became a political headache for President Biden, who faced criticism from Republicans over his decision to allow it to transit over the U.S. for nearly a week before ordering it shot down. Biden officials said they waited until it was off the coast to minimize the risk to civilians on the ground. But lawmakers questioned why it couldn't have been brought down when it was near Alaska's coast, before crossing the U.S.

Though the Pentagon eventually concluded the balloon did not transmit information back to China, its presence put the U.S. military on high alert for other objects in U.S. airspace. Fighter jets shot down several unidentified objects over the U.S. and Canada over the following weeks.

The military couldn't find any debris from those objects, and the search was called off due to dangerous weather conditions. Mr. Biden said the unidentified objects were not believed to be connected to China's spy balloon program.

"The intelligence community's current assessment is that these three objects were mostly balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research," the president said.

The Chinese spy balloon became a major diplomatic point of contention between the U.S. and China, prompting Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing in February 2023. Blinken eventually made the trip in June to try to soothe rising tensions over a number of issues, including the balloon and the Chinese military's assertiveness in the South China Sea.