Everything we know right now about China's second balloon
Published in News & Features
As the U.S. attempts to recover the sunken remains of a huge Chinese balloon it blasted out of the sky with a missile, Beijing acknowledged ownership of a second balloon spotted drifting over several Latin American countries.
Although this particular aircraft hasn’t generated the same level of excitement as the one over U.S. territory — largely because the countries under its flight path appeared unconcerned by its presence — its existence further raises questions about the extent of Chinese surveillance. Here’s everything we know about the second balloon right now:
Where was the second balloon first spotted?
The U.S. Department of Defense said on the night of Feb. 3 that it had seen reports of a balloon transiting Latin America, and assessed that it was a Chinese surveillance balloon akin to one that flew over the U.S. toward the end of January.
Where has it gone since?
The balloon made its way across various Latin American countries, but the response from those nations was muted. Colombia’s Air Force issued a statement Saturday saying it had detected an object flying at 55,000 feet (17,000 meters) entering the country’s airspace in the north a day earlier, which was then monitored until it left Colombian airspace. It said the balloon “didn’t represent a threat to national security and defense, as well as air safety.” Local media also reported that the balloon flew over Costa Rica and Venezuela without incident.
And where is it now?
It is not immediately clear.
What has China said about the second balloon?
China on Monday admitted ownership of the balloon seen floating over Latin America, but denied it was there for surveillance purposes. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on Feb. 6 that it was a unmanned civilian airship with limited self-steering capability blown off course due to the weather. The explanation echoes an earlier one offered for the balloon shot down by the U.S., which China said was also a civilian vehicle used for meteorological and other research purposes that had deviated from its planned course due to westerly winds.
Will this balloon be shot down too?
It appears unlikely. No Latin American countries expressed a desire to shoot the balloon down, unlike the first which was being closely tracked in U.S. airspace. Moreover, while there had been significant domestic political pressure for the U.S. to bring down the balloon, it is a different picture in Latin America where many countries enjoy cordial economic and diplomatic relations with the Chinese. In fact, Venezuela was outraged at the U.S. decision to shoot down the original balloon, which it said was an “attack by the United States against an unmanned civilian aircraft of Chinese origin.”
Could there be more up there?
It’s possible, although they may be hard to detect. In recent years, Chinese balloons have been spotted over countries across five continents, a senior U.S. defense official said on Feb. 4. Last March, a balloon was reported to have hovered for several hours over Taipei’s Songshan Airport, while Japan is also looking into whether two “flying objects” spotted in June 2020 and September 2021 are connected to the one shot down at the weekend. In the U.S., balloons have previously been located near near Texas, Florida and Hawaii, as well as close to the Pacific Ocean island of Guam, where the U.S. has naval and air force bases. Authorities failed to detect those balloons and only learned about them from the U.S. intelligence community later.
(With assistance from Lindsey Rupp and Ryotaro Nakamaru.)
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