The White House said Tuesday that the three objects U.S. fighter jets shot down over Alaska, Canada, and Michigan last weekend may have been harmless research balloons. "The intelligence community is considering as a leading explanation that these could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose," White House national security spokesman John Kirby said. The U.S. won't know more until search teams recover the debris in remote or hard-to-reach places with frigid weather.
U.S. officials also told several news organizations that the fourth aerial object shot down this month — a huge Chinese surveillance balloon — may not have been purposefully sent to spy on the U.S. mainland after all. U.S. intelligence and military analysts tracked the balloon from its launch on China's Hainan Island and watched it head toward Guam, a U.S. territory with a military base, before unexpectedly veering north toward Alaska, U.S. officials told The Washington Post and The Associated Press.
"It appears to have been blown off its initial trajectory," AP reports, citing one U.S. official. "Intelligence analysts are unsure whether the apparent deviation was intentional or accidental, but are confident it was intended for surveillance, most likely over U.S. military installations in the Pacific," the Post adds. A U.S. F-22 shot it down with a heat-seeking missile on Feb. 4.
The White House is now coordinating a set of guidelines on when to engage with or shoot down slow-flying objects floating over North American airspace, and when to let them fly free. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) focuses on fast-flying objects, looking for missiles and hostile fighter jets approaching North America, but it expanded the scope of objects it follows after the Chinese balloon incident.
It's possible NORAD did not appreciate just how many balloons fly over the U.S. at any given time, from military and government observation balloons to school science projects, Paul Fetkowitz, president of high-altitude balloon maker Kaymont Consolidated, tells the Post. This past weekend, "I get the feeling they shot down something that was somebody's research project," he added. "You wonder if they're going to see something over Texas and shoot it down. ... It's in the back of every balloon launcher's mind now."