5 Key Questions About Unidentified "Objects" Shot by Pentagon

There's a lot we don't know about these objects.

After a week of headlines about the "Chinese spy balloon," the U.S. military shot it down on Feb. 4, followed in quick succession by three other unidentified flying objects. The latest was an octagonal flying object downed Sunday over Lake Huron in Michigan on the U.S.-Canada border. There's a lot officials don't know about these objects.

On Monday, officials said that while they didn't present a military threat to people on the ground, they did pose a threat to aircraft and were potentially used to gather intelligence. Read on to find out more about five key questions surrounding these objects.

Are They Extraterrestrial?

Gen Glen D Vanherck/Twitter

On Sunday, Glen VanHerck, the US Air Force general overseeing North American airspace, said he wouldn't rule out an extraterrestrial source for some of the objects. "I'll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven't ruled out anything."  He added: "At this point we continue to assess every threat or potential threat, unknown, that approaches North America with an attempt to identify it."

On Monday, John Kirby, the White House National Security Council spokesman, said, "I don't think the American people need to worry about aliens with respect to these craft. Period."

Where Are The Latest Coming From, And How Do They Stay Airborne?

CBS

In between the downing of the Chinese balloon on February 4 and the latest shoot-down over Lake Huron and Sunday, U.S. fighter jets shot down two other objects: A cylindrical object over the Yukon and another object near Deadhorse, Alaska. On Sunday, VanHerck said the military was unable to immediately determine where the three latest objects were coming from or how they stayed airborne. "We're calling them objects, not balloons, for a reason," he said. "I am not able to categorize how they stay aloft. It could be a gaseous type of balloon inside a structure or it could be some type of a propulsion system. But clearly, they're — they're able to stay aloft."

Identifying where the latest objects came from may not be easy, especially if they were built with commercially available parts. "If someone threw a clock-radio at you and the broken parts inside said 'Made in China,' it doesn't mean that China threw it at you," Brynn Tannehill of the RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank, told New Scientist this week. 

Are They Connected?

CBC

On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the four objects displayed a "pattern" and were connected in some way. "Obviously there is some sort of pattern in there – the fact we are seeing this in a significant degree over the past week is a cause for interest and close attention," he said. Trudeau didn't elaborate on what the "pattern" was.

The objects are different in appearance. While the Chinese spy balloon was about the size of three buses and contained a payload about the size of a passenger aircraft, the cylindrical object shot down over the Yukon was much smaller, about the size of a car. A spokesperson for the Air Force said the difference between them was like "apples and oranges."

When Were They Launched?

CBS

The sudden flurry of sightings and shoot-downs likely doesn't indicate there's been a sudden increase in launched objects. Instead, the military is finding more of these smaller craft because they've started looking for them. "Military radar systems operated by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) – a military organization operated by the US and Canada – are now seeing more of what was already out there after being adjusted to have greater sensitivity," New Scientist explained this week.  "This isn't new," said Tannehill. "I suspect that filters on US systems had previously been ignoring things that were too slow, high or small to be considered threats."

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What Were They Looking At?

CNN

The Chinese balloon was had a large payload with a scaffold-like structure and solar panels. It contained multiple antennae and sensors capable of recording information. But it's unclear what kind of information it had already collected, or how much.  The second object was described as traveling without any apparent source of propulsion, "virtually at the whim of the wind," and the fourth object was believed to have traveled over U.S. military sites, but it was unclear whether it was targeted there or had just drifted there on its own. 

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