Everything we know about the mysterious ‘object’ shot down by US warplanes in Alaska

Faced with an unidentified flying object in the skies over Alaska just one week after an encounter with a Chinese surveillance balloon, the US military apparently opted to shoot first and ask questions later.

Now that object is scattered across the frozen sea in an assortment of smaller pieces – but the questions still remain.

Pentagon officials announced on Friday that they had brought down a car-sized aerial intruder of “unknown origin” inside US airspace, despite not knowing what it was, who owned it or what it was for.

It comes less than one week after a large airship, allegedly sent by China to spy on the US mainland, seized the national news agenda as it drifted across the country before being destroyed off the coast of South Carolina.

Here’s everything we know so far about this mysterious object.

What exactly happened?

According to US officials, the latest object was first detected on radar on the evening of Thursday 9 February by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which monitors and defends the skies over the US and Canada.

It was, said US Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, “about the size of a small car”, and was travelling in a north-easterly direction at an altitude of about 40,000 feet.

Brig Gen Ryder added that it was “not similar in size or shape” to last week’s alleged spy balloon. Other officials said it carried “no significant payload”.

After sending aircraft to get a closer look at the object, the Pentagon recommended to US president Joe Biden that it be shot down, and “out of an abundance of caution”, he agreed.

Two F-22 warplanes were then dispatched from Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage, Alaska, and destroyed the object with an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile at around 1.45pm Eastern Time.

Brig Gen Ryder said that all this happened within US airspace and over US territorial waters, with the wreckage landing on frozen sea off Alaska’s northern coast.

The warplanes were followed by Pave Hawk and Chinook helicopters, plus a C-130 search and rescue plane, aiming to gather up the remains of the object so that it can be studied.

What was the object, and where did it come from?

The short answer is that we don’t know.

“We’re calling this an object because that’s the best description we have right now,” said US National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson John Kirby on Friday. “We do not know who owns it, whether it’s state-owned or corporate-owned or privately owned.”

A subsequent press conference that afternoon offered few answers, with Brig Gen Ryder largely stonewalling in response to reporters’ questions.

“We have no further details about the object at this time, including any description of its capabilities, purpose or origin,” he said. “We will know more once we’re able to potentially recover some of those materials.”

Was there any indication that this balloon also came from China? “At this point, we don’t know.” Did it pose any threat to US radar stations in Alaska? “Again, we’ll know more once we assess it.” Was it a balloon or not a balloon? “Considering the fact that we’re still assessing this object, I don’t want to get into characterising it.” How fast was it travelling? “I don’t have that information.”

Brig Gen Ryder did say that there was “no indication” that they object could manoeuvre itself, and said it was “very, very unlikely” that a craft so small carried human pilots.

Why did the US shoot it down?

The official explanation is that this craft, unlike the Chinese balloon that was left to float across the US earlier this month, posed “a reasonable threat to civilian air traffic”.

Whereas the Chinese balloon was flying at about 60,000 feet, well above the range of altitudes plied by commercial airliners, this one was within that range at around 40,000 feet.

“Any time we detect anything, we’re going to first of all observe it, and then decide and take action. In this case, it was operating at an altitude that posed a reasonable threat to civilian air traffic,” said Brig Gen Ryder, repeating the latter phrase several times.

Yet many reporters questioned why the Biden administration had demurred in shooting down the Chinese balloon but destroyed this one, speculating that the Pentagon or the president may have been motivated by political pressure or a need to look tough in public.

Mr Biden was heavily criticised by his Republican opponents for not immediately destroying or disabling the Chinese craft. One claimed that its appearance was part of “a crisis in America”, while another speculated that it could have contained “bioweapons”.

Officials argued that the risk of civilian casualties in shooting down such a large object over populated land outweighed the likely benefits of shooting it down, saying that that it posed no immediate threat to the American public.

By contrast, Friday’s object was much smaller and was flying over the sea when it was shot down, off the coast of the fourth most sparsely populated county (North Slope Borough, Alaska) in the US.

Are there any theories about the object?

Given last week’s aerial drama, it’s natural that the top possibility in many Americans’ minds right now would be that this is another surveillance craft from China, Russia, or elsewhere.

US officials claim that China has long operated an aerial balloon programme that has sent similar craft floating above the US since at least 2017 – whether for surveillance, or to test the US government’s response, or both.

Perhaps, then, this object was part of the same programme or a similar programme operated by another rival nation.

There is no shortage of interesting surveillance targets in Alaska, which houses nine US military bases, 18,000 military personnel, sensitive oil infrastructure, various radar and early warning systems directed towards nearby Russia, and missiles designed to shoot down incoming nuclear warheads.

Of course, there are more innocent possibilities. The US National Weather Service (NWS) has more weather balloon stations in Alaska than any other state, releasing new ones at the same time every day.

Plenty of scientists and researchers are also interested in the skies over the Arctic, in part because of the region’s role in global weather patterns and in climate change.

There is even a sizeable amateur ballooning community that likes to launch cameras, radio equipment, GPS trackers, scientific sensors, and other objects into the stratosphere.

One final possibility is that the US has just shot down an alien spacecraft, and perhaps triggered an interstellar conflict. Happily, this scenario is relatively unlikely.

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