BILLINGS (US), Feb 4 (AP): The Chinese balloon drifting high above the U.S. and first revealed over Montana has created a buzz down below among residents who initially wondered what it was — and now wonder what its arrival means amid a chorus of alarm raised by elected officials.
The balloon roiled diplomatic tensions as it continued to move over the central U.S. on Friday at 60,000 feet (18,300 metres).
Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly cancelled an upcoming trip to China.
Curiosity about the bobbling sky orb that’s the size of three school buses swept the nation and the internet, with search terms like “where is the spy balloon now?” and “spy balloon tracker” surging on Google.
There is no such tracker just yet, but a couple St. Louis TV stations offered grainy live feeds of the balloon.
Internet users posted wobbly videos and photos of white splotches in comments sections and speculative feeds.
And online storm chasers, more accustomed to tracking raging systems and funnel clouds, offered updates on the balloon’s path through cloudless skies.
It crossed into U.S. airspace over Alaska early this week, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.
In Montana — home to Malmstrom Air Force base and dozens of nuclear missile silos — people doubted Beijing’s claim that it was a weather balloon gone off course.
And the governor and members of Congress pressed the Biden administration over why the military did not immediately bring it down from the sky.
“I question whether or not we would even found out about this if people hadn’t spotted it in Billings,” said Chase Doak, a resident of the southern Montana city who appears to have captured some of the first known video footage and photographs of the balloon.
A white balloon with what appeared to be a solar array hanging beneath it was seen over Billings Wednesday afternoon, around the same time the local airport was temporarily shut down and a day before the Pentagon said it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon over the state.
Initial speculation over its origins ranged from the foreign to the extra-terrestrial.
When Todd Hewett’s 10-year-old son saw it over Billings he thought it was a comet. Hewett got some shaky footage, using a cellphone to take video through a telescope, and was sceptical of the Chinese claim it was a civilian balloon.
“Shoot it down,” he said. “If we could somehow pierce the bottom of it to allow some of the gas to escape to allow for a more controlled descent (that) would be nice .. but if we can’t do that … blow it up.”
Montana has some experience with balloons launched by adversaries: Japan in World War II targeted the western U.S. with incendiary “balloon bombs” that were floated over North America with plans to harm people and start forest fires. More than 30 of the bombs made of rice paper landed in Montana, according to the Montana Historical Society.
In Oregon, five children and a pregnant woman on a church picnic were killed in 1945 when they found one of the bombs and it exploded.
On Friday in Kansas City, Missouri, the National Weather Service said it received reports of a large balloon in the Kansas City metro area and posted two images of white orbs taken from the weather station office in Pleasant Hill, Missouri. The service confirmed it was not a National Weather Service balloon.
The Pentagon late Friday acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America but officials did not specify where it was spotted.