From space aliens to foreign surveillance, we spoke to experts to find out what’s really going on with the balloon brouhaha.
Sorry, UFO Hunters--You Might Just Be Looking at a Spy Balloon
White House Press Secretary: There is no, again, no, indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity.
News Host: Pentagon officials were grilled on Capitol Hill about why they waited so long to shoot it down.
Reporter: Ben, the Pentagon is declining to describe these recent objects as balloons.
Bushwick: As you might have heard, there have been some foreign objects flying overhead.
Reporter: So it is possible that, yes, some of the reports of UFOs were things like foreign surveillance.
Bose: Today, we dive into the science behind the balloon brouhaha.
White House Press Secretary: Again, there is no indication of aliens or terrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.
Bose: I'm Tulika Bose.
Bushwick: I'm Sophie Bushwick.
Bose: And you're listening to Science, Quickly.
So here's a quick recap: on February 4th, the U.S. shot down a massive Chinese surveillance balloon.
Bushwick: After it spent days traveling across the country.
Bose: Another balloon was also spotted floating over Latin America.
Bushwick: And then it emerged that even more balloons had been encroaching on U.S. airspace since 2018 evading early detection. China claimed that the balloon that was shot down was a weather monitoring station blown off course. But then the U.S. recovered sensors and electronic equipment from the wreckage, indicating that it could have been used for eavesdropping on electronic communications.
Bose: The U.S. shot down three more airborne objects.
Bushwick: One off the coast of Alaska, one over Canada and one over Lake Huron in Michigan.
Bose: We still don't know a lot about these three objects, but Sophie, our resident tech editor at Scientific American, decided to interview an aerospace expert and let's not forget...
Bushwick: ... a UAP expert. So this is someone who specializes in ...
Bose: ... unidentified aerial phenomena?
Bushwick: Correct? It's the new and improved term for UFOs.
Bose: I have so many questions.
Bose: Okay, So first of all, tell us who you spoke to.
Bushwick: So in addition to policy experts, I interviewed Ian Boyd.
Boyd: West: The director of our Center for National Security Initiatives here at the University of Colorado.
Bushwick: And to Mick West, a writer who investigates and debunks UAPs.
West: Where they listed a whole bunch of new UAPs and the vast majority of the ones that they identified were balloons.
Bose: It's important to rule out a UFO. I mean, UAPs, right?
Bushwick: Well, okay, let me preface this by saying it's not aliens, but the military has not officially ruled out the idea. According to Mick West that's because the military doesn't like to rule anything out.
West: You know, the military has said, ‘yeah, we've determined it's not to be alien ... not aliens’ because you can't rule out everything.
Bose: Wow. Okay. I'm really curious about that. Can you expand?
Bushwick: Let's explore the possibility that alien ships just so happened to show up a week after we spot this Chinese surveillance balloon.
Actor from "War of the Worlds": But I can see the object itself doesn't look very much like a meteor. At least not the meteors I've seen, it looks more like a huge cylinder.
Bushwick: If these objects were alien ships, they would be ships that are acting a whole lot like balloons.
Bose: Wait, how does that work?
Bushwick: So these particular objects were about the size of a small car, which is consistent with the size of a typical weather balloon, although it's a lot smaller than the first surveillance balloon that was shot down. And they didn't seem to move under their own propulsion. They just drifted with the wind.
Bose: Okay. But I heard that the earlier balloon seemed to change course. How did it do that? If it's just moving with the wind.
Bushwick: So here's why that maneuverability aspect is so interesting and unexpected. The typical balloon does move at the mercy of the wind, and it can only change position to shift up or down. But because different altitudes may have wind moving at different speeds, this does give it a limited ability to navigate. That said, the big balloon that was shot down early this month did seem to change course at one point.
It also apparently had some structures on it that looked like propellers.
Bose: How do we know that these could be, in fact, spy balloons?
Bushwick: So the objects that were shot down more recently could have been spy balloons, but they could also have been innocuous research balloons. They could have been something else entirely, maybe some sort of other craft, like a dirigible. But the reason we're pretty confident that the first balloon was a surveillance platform is because it had equipment on board, like antenna that could be used to transmit information.
And this is especially worrying because it was traveling over some sensitive military sites, including where missiles are stored.
Bose: I'm curious, what did Ian Boyd say about this?
Bushwick: Ian Boyd pointed out that by studying the electronic signals that are being used at those sites, an adversary could potentially figure out ways to jam the signals or to interfere with them in some ways.
Boyd: It gives you more information about designing a counter, a countermeasure to to be able to, you know, suppress or disable those kinds of communications.
Bose: And I have another question: what do you think people are getting wrong about all the balloon coverage, especially when it comes to science and tech?
Bushwick: So a lot of people are having fun speculating about aliens, but it's not likely that we're mistaking an alien craft for balloons. What is likely is that we're mistaking balloons for aliens. So Mick West studies UAPs and debunks them. And he pointed out that the government has also been interested in exploring these phenomena in recent years, and they've released reports on them.
West: I'm sure you've read the recent UAP report that came out in January where they listed a whole bunch of new UAPs and the vast majority of the ones that they identified were balloons, because it's such a common thing to be in the air. And they're not going to be things like research balloons. They're going to be mostly wind like party balloons.
Bushwick: And in these reports, a lot of the UAPs they investigate turn out to be duh duh duh dah ... balloons!
Bose: Yes. That's so interesting. So.
Bushwick: It makes sense because there's a lot of balloons in the air.
Bose: But do you think people should take away from all of this, especially from a science and tech perspective?
Bushwick: People might be worried about these three objects shot down in quick succession, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they were threats. So after the larger spy balloon was detected, NORAD their radar typically filters out smaller objects because radar can pick up those Mylar party balloons. It can pick up birds even, you know, certain clouds under some conditions.
So they they have their radar tuned to filter out those small objects. And after detecting the Chinese surveillance balloon, they they widened the filter to catch more things. And that's probably why the government detected those balloon like objects. And they claim that the reason they shot them down wasn't because they were necessarily threatening, it was because they were at an altitude where they could have interfered with civilian aircraft.
So the truth is out there. And the truth is balloons. [Laughs]
Bushwick: For Scientific American. I'm Sophie Bushwick.
Bose: I'm Tulika Bose.
Bushwick: Don't forget to listen to Science Quickly for in-depth news and features and subscribe to ScientificAmerican.com.