The US Department of Defense has released images taken by aviators flying over a Chinese balloon that was shot down earlier this month. The Chinese government claims the balloon is a meteorological ship that has gone off course. But Washington says the balloon was part of a larger Chinese intelligence program. As the balloon flew over U.S. territory, at least two aircraft collected information about its characteristics and trajectory.
A senior State Department official said earlier this month that the flyby showed it was capable of conducting signal intelligence-gathering operations. Officials first noticed the balloon when it dropped on April 28. A North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) fighter, a joint US-Canadian operation, identified the object but the military did not shoot it down at the time. Officials said the balloon could not have been launched on land as it would pose a threat to civilians on the ground due to the balloon’s size and likely debris.
The balloon is said to hover at an altitude of 18,200m. According to the Air Force, U-2 aircraft typically fly at altitudes above 70,000 feet. Nicknamed the Dragon Lady, this single-seat reconnaissance plane was previously flown by his CIA. A pilot must wear full pressure suit similar to what astronauts wear. The task of retrieving the balloon wreckage scattered across the Atlantic finished last Friday.