A UFO spotted over US airspace on Thursday, suspected of being a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon, has now been identified by Chinese officials in an explanation all too familiar with conspiracy theorists: the object is apparently a rogue weather balloon.
“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” a spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday, reported by CNN.
“Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course,” the spokesperson continued. “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure.”
The US government had been tracking the aircraft for several days as it made its way from Alaska's Aleutian Islands and through Canada earlier this week. By Wednesday, the balloon had reached the skies over the city of Billings in Montana – a state that houses some of the US’s nuclear silos, and therefore a potential site for Chinese espionage.
However, while its current flight path does carry the balloon over “a number of sensitive sites,” one senior US defense official told CNN that it does not present a significant intelligence-gathering risk.
“It does not create significant value added over and above what [China] is likely able to collect through things like satellites in low Earth orbit,” the official said.
Because of this limited intelligence-gathering capability – plus the danger of falling debris, as the balloon is roughly the size of three buses – US military officials opted not to shoot the balloon down. It was flying too high to pose a threat to civilian air traffic, and was not a military or physical threat to people on the ground, Pentagon officials said.
“Why not shoot it down? We have to do the risk-reward here,” CNN’s senior official source explained. “So the first question is, does it pose a threat, a physical kinetic threat, to individuals in the United States in the US homeland? Our assessment is it does not. Does it pose a threat to civilian aviation? Our assessment is it does not. Does it pose a significantly enhanced threat on the intelligence side? Our best assessment right now is that it does not. So given that profile, we assess the risk of downing it, even if the probability is low in a sparsely populated area of the debris falling and hurting someone or damaging property, that it wasn’t worth it.”
While the incident is still diplomatically tense between the two nations, both the US and China have confirmed that communication is ongoing regarding the balloon’s appearance in US airspace – with Chinese spokespeople warning against “deliberate speculation or hyping up” of the situation.
Nevertheless, an upcoming US diplomatic trip to Beijing has been postponed indefinitely while US intelligence considers the matter.
“[We] are trying to understand the circumstances and verify the details of the situation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told CNN at a news conference on Friday. “China is a responsible country. We act in accordance with international law. We have no intention in violating other countries’ airspace. We hope relevant parties would handle the matter in a cool-headed way.”