(CNN) — A series of “unidentified objects” entered the skies over North America in recent days, only to be shot down by US military aircraft. And in the great tradition of public speculation about mysterious flying entities, many people have questioned whether it is extraterrestrial activity.
The short answer? No, is not that.
“I know there have been questions and concerns about this, but no — again — no indication of extraterrestrials (or) extraterrestrial activity,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said during a briefing this Wednesday. Monday.
US officials have referred to the object shot down off the east coast on February 4 as a surveillance balloon, while the other three stopped dead on February 10, 11 and 12, respectively, as unidentified objects that they moved slowly through the skies at around the same altitude that airplanes fly.
But that doesn’t mean officials are suggesting the objects are unexplained in nature or even related to a previously observed “unidentified aerial phenomenon” that is also unlikely to be extraterrestrial in origin. And at least two high-ranking US officials have used the term “globe” to describe the recent intruders, though the official Pentagon stance is to steer clear of that description.
Officials are currently working to recover pieces of all three objects and identify their intended purpose.
US airspace is no stranger to bulky, slow-moving objects. High-altitude balloons are used for a wide range of authorized purposes in the public and private sectors, including monitoring the weather, capturing clear images of the cosmos, conducting scientific experiments, and testing new radar technologies.
Meteorologists launch high-altitude balloons from the United States dozens of times a day. Additionally, the weather balloons are deployed twice a day, every day, at the same time from nearly 900 locations around the world.
Even individual citizens can launch their own balloon at a high altitude for research, education, or entertainment purposes. For example, Emily Calandrelli, an engineer and media personality, released an ultrasound of her unborn child in a high-altitude balloon in 2019 and documented the experience online. There are also some companies exploring ways to use technologically advanced balloons to send paying customers high-altitude adventures aboard a luxurious capsule.
Here’s a look at how high-altitude balloons work, what they’re commonly used for, and how they compare to the unidentified objects that have grabbed headlines in recent days.
The “unidentified objects”
The events of the past two weeks sparked a broader conversation about an alleged campaign by China to use high-altitude balloons for reconnaissance.
Chinese government officials may have hoped to use aircraft, rather than rely on space-based spy satellites (of which there are many from the US, China, and other countries), because a balloon travels further. closer to the ground and provides better image and data quality, said John Kirby, coordinator of strategic communications for the National Security Council, during Monday’s briefing at the White House.
He added that China’s alleged campaign is not new and we are likely to hear more about these objects now just because the military is getting better at identifying and tracking them.
China claimed that the suspected spy balloon was actually a weather balloon that veered off course, a version US officials say is not true. No country has claimed responsibility for the other three objects.
Melissa Dalton, Under Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs, told reporters Sunday that the objects were shot down by military aircraft out of “an abundance of caution” as they did not pose a physical threat to people on the ground.
Dalton also acknowledged that high-altitude objects can be used by a variety of companies, countries, and research organizations for “other than perverse purposes, including legitimate research.”
How do high altitude balloons work?
There are many different configurations and types of high altitude balloons, but they all work on the same principles. Before launch, the balloon is partially filled with a gas, such as hydrogen or helium. After launch, as the balloon rises and the air thins, the gas expands and fully inflates the balloon.
The scientific instrument — called a radiosonde — that ascends attached to a weather balloon is parachuted to the ground once the mission is complete, according to the National Weather Service. NASA also states on its website that it uses a chase plane to track science balloons as they descend to make sure they land in safe locations.
When balloons are used for authorized purposes, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approves their launch in advance. The agency can then issue a notice to the air mission, or NOTAM, which alerts aircraft pilots that airspace is restricted around the area where the balloon will be deployed. A similar process occurs every time rockets are launched into space.
Weather balloons and research balloons typically fly at altitudes of more than 100,000 feet (30,480 meters), well above where commercial aircraft typically fly, according to NASA and the National Weather Service.
That’s one reason the objects downed over the weekend were so concerning: They were found to be flying between 20,000 and 40,000 feet (6,096 and 12,192 meters), according to Kirby, and could have posed a risk to aircraft in the air.
High Altitude Balloons: A Story
Researchers have used balloons to explore the upper atmosphere for scientific purposes since the late 19th century, with some of the earliest flights looking to study topics like weather patterns and cosmic rays.
From there, the research expanded into “air sampling for atomic explosions, photographic flights over strange terrain, astronomical observations above disturbances in the troposphere, and even aerodynamic testing of free-falling payloads,” according to the Encyclopedia. British.
Research never stopped, even as suborbital sounding rockets offered new ways to carry experiments into the upper atmosphere. This is because balloons still offer unique advantages: they don’t disturb the environment around them, they are very gentle on scientific instruments, they can float in one place for long periods of time, and they cost less than rockets.
CNN’s Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report