It is a bird, a plane or a Chinese spy balloon? None of the above

One year on, balloon fever remains alive and well in the US

Just when you thought the skies over America were finally free of Chinese spy balloons … well they are, at least in this latest case of a mystery object that was spotted while flying over the western US.

Officials at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) observed the balloon, reportedly floating at an altitude between 43,000 and 45,000 feet, late last week and on Friday scrambled a fighter jet to intercept it to get a closer look. The jet determined there was no threat to US national security, finding it was likely a hobbyist balloon.

"After yesterday's fighter intercepts, and in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration, [NORAD] monitored the likely hobby balloon via ground radars until it left US airspace overnight," the agency said in a statement sent to multiple outlets over the weekend. 

The balloon, which was floating higher than the typical cruising altitude of commercial airliners, was reportedly not maneuverable, posed no threat to flight safety, and was carrying a roughly two-foot cube as a payload. Officials had no idea what the balloon was carrying, but concluded it wasn't a threat.

For those wondering, yes it costs vastly more to launch a US fighter jet than this balloon likely cost.

Balloon fever: The sequel

It's been a little over a year since the US was gripped in a wave of spy balloon mania that, as appears to be the case now, never quite faded entirely. 

In early February, 2023, a Chinese high-altitude spy balloon (which China insisted was an errant weather balloon) was detected over the US, prompting concerns of espionage and anger from some over the decision not to shoot it down.

The stadium-sized balloon was eventually shot down off the east coast of the US and found to be packed with US-made off-the-shelf hardware mixed with Chinese-made sensors and equipment able to capture photos, videos and radar data. According to US officials, the device never transmitted anything back to China. 

Several other balloons were spotted and shot down in the wake of the spy balloon furor, but none of them appeared to be spy devices, at least from what officials said publicly. 

With this latest 50-foot hobbyist balloon now outside of US airspace, it's likely to remain a mystery unless someone else wants to knock it out of the sky. As for where it might have originated, where it exited American skies or where it might be headed, that's not clear. We asked NORAD to confirm, but haven't heard back. ®

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