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The US, Canada shot down objects, but what were they?

US officials are unsure what the latest objects are, much less their purpose or who sent them
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The US government and Canada have been busy intercepting unidentified flying objects in the skies, shooting down one on Friday over Alaska, another on Saturday over the Yukon Territory and a third over Michigan on Sunday.

The two countries are still trying to identify and recover the objects, but those efforts are likely to be hampered because of the remote locations off the Arctic coast of Alaska and the rugged Canadian wilderness.

The incidents came a week after the United States blasted a Chinese spy balloon out of the sky that was equipped with an antenna meant to pinpoint the locations of communications devices and was capable of intercepting calls made on those devices.

The balloon, which traversed America for several days, transfixed the public and focused attention both in Washington and across the country on the intensifying rivalry between China and the United States.

Here is what we know about the episodes.

What happened over Alaska, the Yukon and Michigan?

On Friday, the US military shot down an unidentified flying object over the Arctic Ocean near Alaska. Troops with US Northern Command were working near Deadhorse, Alaska, with Alaska National Guard units, the FBI and local law enforcement to recover the object and determine its nature, Defence Department officials have said.

Then on Saturday, an American F-22 with the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which is operated jointly by the United States and Canada, downed the object over the Yukon Territory. Norad had sent American fighter jets, which were soon joined by Canadian fighters, to track the object.

The F-22 used a Sidewinder air-to-air missile to down the object over Canadian territory, the same type that was used to obliterate the two previous flying objects.

The United States took down another object on Sunday over Lake Huron using an F-16 fighter jet that shot the object with a Sidewinder air-to-air missile.

Why were these objects shot down faster?

The Chinese spy balloon traversed the country before it was taken down earlier this month, allowing US officials to observe it and collect intelligence. It was flying at 60,000 feet and didn’t pose a danger to aircraft.

The object above Michigan was flying at 20,000 feet and was a potential danger to civil aviation. US and Canadian officials say the objects shot down on Friday and Saturday were also flying lower than the spy balloon, posing a greater danger to civilian aircraft.

Pentagon officials also said that falling debris from the spy balloon could have hit people on the ground. But the other objects were downed over water or sparsely populated areas, minimising the risk of falling debris.

The spy balloon has also created a state of hypervigilance. Even though it is rare for the United States to shoot down unidentified flying objects, tensions with China remained high after the balloon was spotted almost two weeks ago in American skies.

How are the latest objects different from the Chinese balloon?

US officials are unsure what the latest objects are, much less their purpose or who sent them. Beijing has acknowledged that the balloon was China’s but said it was for weather research.

John F Kirby, a White House spokesperson, has said that the object shot down near Alaska was “much, much smaller than the spy balloon that we took down” and that “the way it was described to me was roughly the size of a small car, as opposed to the payload that was like two or three buses.”

What was the spy balloon collecting?

This remains a big question. Officials do not yet know what information the balloon was supposed to be stealing as it made its way across the country.

The balloon had a signals intelligence array — fancy spy speak for an antenna that can locate communications devices and listen into them. But officials do not yet know if that array was meant to gather calls made on military radios or from ordinary mobile phones or something else altogether.

How many spy balloons have there been?

Balloons are hard to pick up on radar. Many of the first Chinese spy balloons that were observed near US military exercises or bases were not identified as surveillance tools. Instead, they were classified as unidentified aerial phenomena, modern-day Pentagon jargon for UFOs.

Over the past 18 months, the United States began learning more about the Chinese spy balloon programme. As officials reviewed some previous cases of unidentified aerial phenomena, they determined that they were spy balloons. A review of the old data showed that at least three spy balloons entered US airspace during the Trump administration. There was at least one additional visit during the Biden administration.

But all of those previous incidents were relatively short — not the dayslong transit of this month’s spy balloon.

Was this part of a wider Chinese surveillance programme?

China has developed a spy balloon programme as a complement to its fleet of reconnaissance satellites, American officials said, with a mission to collect information across the world.

Because the capabilities of the spy balloons are not yet perfectly understood, it is not certain if they gather different information from China’s satellites. Nevertheless, officials said, at the very least, the balloons can linger longer over a site than a satellite. And while reconnaissance satellites are often focused on imagery, the balloons appear to be mostly about collecting communications.

Some officials say the spy balloon programme has been focused in the Pacific region, collecting information on US bases and allied military operations.

And of course, the Chinese do not just use balloons to conduct surveillance at military bases. Some classified reports suggest they are also using advanced technologies to collect information about the US military.

Is this a big deal or not? - The New York Times.

Julian E Barnes

The writer is a national security reporter for The NYT

Adam Goldman

The writer is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist

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