News broke this evening that the Pentagon has been tracking a spy balloon believed to be from China that’s currently floating somewhere over the continental U.S. And it’s causing quite a commotion, to say the least.

First reported by NBC News, the balloon was reportedly spotted on Wednesday over Montana and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of top officials, despite the fact that he was in the Philippines to announce a new defense cooperation agreement with the country.

But what do we actually know about the balloon? The latest news is below.

Who launched the balloon?

The Pentagon says it has “very high confidence” the balloon was launched by China and that such a thing has actually happened before, according to the Associated Press. The difference this time is that the balloon is reportedly lingering over U.S. airspace longer than usual.

“The United States Government has detected and is tracking a high altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now. The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement published online.

Where is the balloon exactly?

The balloon flew from China over the Aleutian Islands, the long island chain that stretches out from southern Alaska, according to NBC News. From there, it traveled through Canada and into Montana, though U.S. officials aren’t saying precisely where the balloon is right now, except to say that it’s at a height which won’t endanger commercial air traffic.

“The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years,” the Pentagon said in a statement published online.


What does the balloon look like?

The Billings Gazette published a photo of the balloon it suggests was taken on Wednesday afternoon from the ground in Billings. KSVI-TV in Montana has also published a photo of what it believes was a view of the balloon taken from the ground on Wednesday. It’s difficult to decipher what’s actually happening in the photos except to say it’s a large white balloon with the rough outline of what looks like a satellite in the foreground.

What is the balloon used for?

The Pentagon isn’t getting explicit about that part yet. But the balloon caused chaos for air traffic in Billings on Wednesday, according to the Billings Gazette, despite assurances from the Pentagon that it wouldn’t do so now. Air traffic was shut down over Billings for a period of time on Wednesday and U.S. fighter jets were seen flying in the area.

Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana has one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields, a possible target for espionage, though that’s simply speculation at this point. Any intelligence collection capabilities would likely be less than a typical spy satellite, according to the Washington Post, and China has plenty of those in orbit already.

Can’t they just shoot the balloon down?

The U.S. military has opted not to shoot down the balloon, according to PBS Newshour, simply because they don’t want to run the risk of it landing on anything on the ground.

“Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” the Pentagon said.


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