The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s a ton of crap in the sky we haven’t shot down (yet)

Drones, spy balloons, UFOs or UAPs — American airspace has never been more crowded, or mysterious

Various objects—planes, helicopters, drones—in the sky.
(Illustration by Elena Lacey/The Washington Post; iStock)
10 min

The sky is full of stuff. Much of it can be identified, often with the naked eye: police helicopters, prop planes, ravens and starlings and eagles, runaway pink and blue latex balloons from gender-reveal parties. An average of 45,000 flights traverse American airspace daily, with 5,400 aircraft in the sky at peak operational times. Every day the National Weather Service launches about 180 balloons to collect data, sometimes from as high as 20 miles up. Higher still, approximately 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbit the Earth, along with 500,000 marble-sized objects, plus more than 5,000 working satellites. At lower altitudes: at least a million recreational drones, hovering over your neighbor’s backyard barbecue or at the wedding reception down the street. Some of the stuff in the sky is immediately identifiable, some less so. The alien craft that crashed in rural Colombia in 2017 and freaked out farmers? An internet balloon designed to boost WiFi signals.

“It’s just a tremendous quantity of things that are now up in the air that causes confusion to the general public, which is maybe not informed and too busy looking at their cellphones — but they look up once and they see something,” says Rich Hoffman, an executive board member for the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (UAP stands for “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” a euphemism for UFOs).

The abundance of random stuff in the sky has gone from confusing to alarming over the past two weeks, as the U.S. military targeted four airborne objects to shoot down with Sidewinder missiles. One object was determined to be a foreign surveillance balloon, 200 feet tall, with a payload the size of a commercial fuselage. It was part of a Chinese spying flock that has soared over dozens of countries around the world.

What about the other three objects?

They’re “most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions,” President Biden said Thursday, while confirming that we don’t know what they are yet.

“I’ll just use the word ‘object.’ That’s what everyone’s using,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this week. “We’ll see.”

We’ll see! How can something feel so casual and so serious at the same time? A mystery in the air is a nice distraction from the mess on the ground, and Americans have long been obsessed with the aerial unknown. We have delusions of abduction. We have anxieties about incoming missiles. Now our military engages three objects, and we demand firm answers while thrilling to the possibility of spycraft or science fiction, or reverting to deadpan humor.

“Lock your doors tonight,” Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said Tuesday after a classified briefing on the matter.

Until the objects are recovered from their hard-to-reach crash sites — in the Yukon’s Canadian Rockies, at the bottom of Lake Huron, off the north coast of Alaska — they will remain UAPs, or UFOs, or whatever. The point is: They’re unidentified.

On Sunday, military pilots over Lake Huron couldn’t figure out what they were engaging. The object was too small. Too slow-moving. There was too much glare.

“I can’t tell if it’s metallic or what,” one pilot said, according to cockpit audio obtained by journalist Thomas Newdick from an earthbound eavesdropper identified as “Mike in southwest Wisconsin.” “It’s kind of, like, blackish. I’m gonna call it, like, a container. I can’t really tell, though, what the shape is.”

More cockpit conversation, at a different point: “It’s almost like an octagon-ish shape. I’m gonna call it a balloon. You can definitely see strings hanging down below‚ but I don’t see anything below it. It’s pretty small — I dunno, the size of, like, a four-wheeler or something.”

Meanwhile, the void of explanation is filled with speculation ranging from the cynical to the absurd, the likely to the very unlikely. Was the object downed over the Yukon actually a 32-inch balloon launched by a club of hobbyists in Illinois, wondered Aviation Week? The balloon last transmitted its position Feb. 10 at an altitude of 36,000 feet off the west coast of Alaska, drifting toward the Yukon, a day before the U.S. military hit a target around there.

“For now we are calling Pico Balloon K9YO Missing in Action,” the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade wrote on its blog Tuesday.

It took two attempts to hit the object over Lake Huron; did a $19 million jet fire a $400,000 missile at what could have been a $6 Mylar balloon from a child’s birthday party … and miss? Why, suddenly, is the military engaging multiple objects? Is it because we are experiencing a failing, slow-motion invasion by a hapless species from another solar system?

“There is no — again, no — indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday, to laughter from journalists.

Let’s identify three things that we know for sure.

First, NORAD usually looks for marquee threats such as nuclear missiles and enemy bombers, but it opened its radar filters in response to the Chinese balloon. Now smaller, slower objects — including garbage that would normally be filtered out as noise — are instead appearing as signals that can be engaged or investigated.

Second, air and space have been getting more crowded with objects, as aerial technology improves and proliferates among governments, corporations and the public. (Not all of these objects are flying in a propulsive manner. Some, like balloons, are merely floating.)

Third, the United States is taking unidentified objects more seriously than ever, and in a more public way. Some of these objects are explainable. Some are baffling.

“I just spoke with AARO today,” Tim Gallaudet, a retired rear admiral, said by phone Wednesday morning. He’s referring to the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, a seven-month-old operation in the Defense Department that handles “unidentified space, airborne, submerged and transmedium objects,” according to the Pentagon.

In previous eras, such investigation of UFOs was either conducted in secret or dismissed entirely. Now, as of last year, it is required by law.

“The amount of stuff in the air is increasing in terms of objects, or just clutter, so this is a really interesting time that this is happening,” said Gallaudet, referring to the recent shoot-downs. “I’ve witnessed in my lifetime the exponential increase in the type and number and activity of aerial drones.”

From 2018: UFOs are suddenly a serious news story. You can thank the guy from Blink-182 for that.

Reports of “unmanned aircraft sightings” have increased “dramatically” over the past two years, according to the FAA. In the final three months of last year, 279 such sightings were reported to the FAA, across 38 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. For example, on Dec. 11 an Airbus A321 en route from Fort Lauderdale to Cancún spotted “a black balloon with a black box attached” nearly 15,000 feet above the greater Miami area. Over three consecutive days in December, a “small metallic object” plus two other UFOs were spotted from F-35 fighter jets 20,000 feet above Gila Bend, Ariz.

Drones? Balloons? What?

Gallaudet, a former deputy NOAA administrator, is convinced that some UFOs spotted off the Eastern Seaboard have demonstrated capabilities that “are not of human origin.” Navy pilots have reported regular sightings of such objects — corroborated by multiple sensors — that seem to defy the capabilities of terrestrial engineering. There have been 11 near miss encounters with these objects, according to Scott W. Bray, deputy director of naval intelligence.

“It is not the human eye confusing objects in the sky,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said at a House Intelligence subcommittee hearing on UAPs, in May 2022. “There is something there, measurable by multiple instruments. And yet it seems to move in directions that are inconsistent with what we know of physics or science more broadly.”

In the mid-20th century, a total of 12,618 UFOs were catalogued by Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s attempt to investigate the phenomena, and 701 of those sightings could not be explained. Project Blue Book was shuttered in 1969 after an advisory panel concluded that the UFO investigation wasn’t worth it. All these years later, the government has clearly changed its mind. We have the new All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, which last month released its annual report on unidentified aerial phenomena. Sightings are increasing, according to the report, “partially due to reduced stigma.” The report counts 366 UAPs observed by military aviators and systems since March 2021, the majority of which were judged to be drones, balloons or general “clutter” such as birds or airborne plastic bags. However, 171 remain “uncharacterized,” and some “appear to have demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities.”

On Monday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby used the Chinese balloon as an occasion to speak broadly about UAPs.

“These unidentified aerial phenomena have been reported for many years, without explanation or deep examination by the government,” Kirby told the White House press corps. “President Biden has changed all that. We are finally trying to understand them better.”

Senators are agitated. “I don’t want a damn balloon going across the United States when we could’ve taken it down over the Aleutian Islands,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Feb. 9. On Tuesday, Sen. Kennedy emerged from the classified briefing with more questions than answers. UFOs have been a longtime problem, he confirmed, and we don’t know what many of them are.

“If you are confused,” Kennedy told reporters, “you understand the situation perfectly.”

“The primary thing we’ve been saying all along is not that these are alien spaceships,” said Christopher Mellon, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who in 2017 helped put witnesses and declassified UAP videos in front of Congress and the New York Times. “The issue has been: We should know who is operating in U.S. airspace. And everyone can agree on that. The frustration that we’ve been feeling is now shared by the Congress and the American people. We’re sorry it happened this way, that it had to be a Chinese balloon, but we’re grateful it’s dawning on people that this is a genuine, legitimate issue.”

What does it all mean, though? What can we deduce from all this clutter in the sky, and all this clamor on the ground?

“I think we can deduce that people get scared too easily,” said astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who helps track the bumper-car ballet of satellites higher up, in orbit. “There’s been a lot of unnecessary panic around this. … For the most part, the right attitude is to shrug and let it fly over.”

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

More on the flying objects shot down over U.S., Canada

The latest: U.S. fighter jets have shot four objects out of the sky over North America this month. The first object, a balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, was Chinese. Biden said Thursday the three other objects did not so far appear to have connections to foreign surveillance programs.

The first balloon: The first object was linked by the U.S. intelligence community to a vast surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army. Here’s a timeline of the balloon’s journey across the United States and photos of the recovery.

The response from China: China’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. has sent at least 10 unsanctioned balloons into Chinese airspace since last year. China accused the United States of an “overreaction” and reiterated claims that the airship was a civilian vessel that drifted off course.

Why use a spy balloon? Spy balloons “offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at Cornell, tells us. The Defense Department told Congress that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace before, and a top U.S. general said past incursions by Chinese balloons went undetected by the Pentagon.