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Spy balloon launched from Chinese island was tracked the whole time, sources say

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023. (U.S. Fleet Forces)
February 16, 2023

The U.S. had already been tracking the Chinese spy balloon for nearly a week before it ever crossed into American airspace, officials said, lengthening the time that the government was aware of the balloon before it flew across the country earlier this month.

The balloon was being tracked as early as its launch from a large island off the south coast of China, called Hainan Island, which occurred nearly a week before the balloon floated over Alaska on Jan. 28, the Washington Post reported, citing several anonymous officials.

The wider public was aware of the balloon for just two days before U.S. fighter jet pilots shot it down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, kickstarting a series of events that soon saw three more unidentified objects shot out of North American skies in as many days.

Officials have described the balloon as part of a broader surveillance program run by China’s People’s Liberation Army that has targeted more than 40 countries. The later objects so far have not been linked to China and have been described as possibly “benign.”

By analyzing the balloon’s path from Hainan Island, officials are now considering the possibility that its days-long voyage across much of the U.S., including near sensitive nuclear missile sites, was accidental, the Post reported. China has insisted that the balloon was a civilian weather research balloon blown far off course.

Strong winds appear to have pushed the balloon into the continental U.S. from Canada, officials told the Post. And while it was over the Pacific Ocean, the balloon may only have swerved northward to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands due the effects of a powerful cold front, according to the newspaper’s analysis of air currents.

But even if the balloon’s incursion was a mistake, officials say its lingering near nuclear missile sites in Montana was not. The balloon was at least partly maneuverable with propellers and a rudder, officials said, meaning China could have taken advantage of the balloon to collect intelligence even after it blew off course.