Over the course of nine days, the U.S. military has shot four high-altitude objects out of the skies over North America. In the first instance, the Defense Department and intelligence sources are confident of the object’s composition and terrestrial origins. The other three, however? The Pentagon is less certain.
Less than a week after the U.S. Air Force shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the Atlantic coast, a trio of new unidentified “objects” appeared in the skies above North America, prompting federal authorities to restrict airspace, scramble fighter jets, and blow them out of the sky. An F-22 Raptor shot down the first object on Friday over the northern part of Alaska, while a second object drifted from Alaska into Canada before an F-22 brought it down in the Yukon on Saturday. And on Sunday, another “high-altitude airborne object” moved over the Great Lakes, before it was ultimately shot down by an F-16 Fighting Falcon over Lake Huron.
As of Sunday evening, the Pentagon isn’t offering much information on what these new high-altitude objects could be, or why they are suddenly showing up with such frequency.
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The most recent three objects are “similar” in size and speed, Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) told reporters at a briefing Sunday evening. He did not go into specifics about the composition, shape, or actual size of the objects during the briefing, although on Friday, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder described the item shot down over Alaska as being the size of a small car. For comparison, the Chinese spy balloon that flew across the United States to the South Carolina coast was roughly 200 feet tall.
Despite their sudden appearance in the aftermath of the Chinese spy balloon shootdown, VanHerck said that he could not categorize the new trio of objects as balloons and urged observers to avoid speculating on any country of origin. He also avoided specifics on how these objects stayed in the air apart from confirming that they appeared to move with air currents.
“We call them ‘objects’ for a reason. Certainly, the event off the South Carolina coast for the Chinese spy balloon, that was clearly a balloon. These are objects,” VanHerck said.
The Pentagon is confident the first incident that preceded this weekend’s trio of shootdowns involved a balloon sent from China due to a “basis in intelligence,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs Melissa Dalton said.
Asked point blank if he had ruled out the possibility that the objects from the past few days were extraterrestrial in origin, VanHerck said that he had not.
“I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven’t ruled out anything,” he said. “At this point, we continue to assess every threat or potential threats unknown that approaches North America with an attempt to identify it.”
Not everyone in the national security world is as open-minded as VanHerck, apparently: A senior U.S. national security official told the New York Times that no one thinks the objects are extraterrestrial. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters today that this was the White House’s assessment as well.
“I just wanted to make sure we addressed this from the White House. I know there have been questions and concerns about this, but there is no — again, no — indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns,” Jean-Pierre said. “Again, there is no indication of aliens of terrestrial [sic] activity with these recent takedowns. Wanted to make sure that the American people knew that, all of you know that. It was important for us to say that from here because we’ve been hearing a lot about it. I loved ET the movie, but I’m just going to leave it there.”
As for why the U.S. is suddenly picking up so many new signatures, Dalton stated that it was a result of adjusting and “enhancing” radar systems in the wake of the Chinese spy balloon’s flight over North America, tweaking them to change parameters tied to altitude and speed.
U.S. radar systems previously filtered out slow-moving objects, which it is no longer doing, allowing for the detection of these new objects, she said.
Dalton added that “countries, companies, [and] research organizations” operate objects at such heights for non-nefarious purposes, but these objects were on paths that would put them close to “sensitive” Defense Department sites. Dalton and VanHerck said that none posed any active military threat, but were potentially a hazard for civilian aviation.
The military chose to shoot these objects down more quickly than they had with the balloon. All four shootdowns this month used AIM 9X missiles.
Asked why a missile with that level of destructive power was used, especially given the desire to retrieve debris to study, VanHerck said that guns were considered, but pilots felt that wasn’t achievable due to the size of each object. AIM 9X were used as they were able to lock onto a contrast in heat or infrared signals; while VanHerck was again hesitant to attribute any information on the objects’ make, he said there was a natural contrast between the objects and the air around them.
The size of the objects also made them difficult to track overnight. The object shot over Lake Huron, for instance, was initially detected on Saturday, and U.S. military aircraft were scrambled to track it. But with light fading and poor radar detection, the “anomaly” disappeared, VanHerck said.
The lack of information is in part because no pieces of the objects have been recovered yet. Crews are currently working to collect debris at all four sites. The FBI is taking the lead on investigating, while the object shot down over the Yukon, the Royal Canadian Mounted police are.
Are these objects a new occurrence, or could similar ones have been in North American skies prior to February’s shootdowns? The Pentagon is also not sure. The military intends to go back with current data to see if there was a possibility, officials said.
As of Sunday evening, the Pentagon was not tracking any other unidentified object in American airspace. Officials did not say if any images potentially taken during the encounters would be released, nor if any further adjustments to the radar search parameters are expected.
“Anything that approaches North America, if it’s unknown, I’m going to go identify it and assess if this is a threat,” VanHerck said. “If it is a threat, I’ll shoot it down.”
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