Residents of Billings, Montana, encountered a rather strange sight this week: A giant white ball hovering in the sky in broad daylight. The ball drifted between clouds and shimmered in the sun. It looked almost like a second moon.
American military officials suspect that the floating mystery object is a Chinese spy balloon. The high-altitude object, they say, traveled from China to Alaska and then Canada before crossing into the continental United States. The U.S. government considered shooting down the balloon before determining that the resulting debris could endanger those on the ground. China has insisted that the aerial interloper isn’t a surveillance system, but a weather balloon that was unfortunately blown off course. The White House said that the balloon isn’t a threat to anyone on the ground, but the U.S. secretary of state has postponed a scheduled trip to Beijing, reportedly because of the situation.
In a way, this is one more uncomfortable chapter in the story of adversarial nations operating in a shared stratosphere. It is also—hear me out—a little refreshing. After several years of breathless news coverage of mysterious things moving across the sky, inscrutable pilot footage, and shadowy government programs, here is a headline-grabbing flying object of concern that is, for once, identified. The U.S. and China may have different explanations for what the thing does, but we know what it is—and it’s not aliens.
As in the case of the Chinese balloon, there are almost always terrestrial explanations for unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, a term that has been synonymous with aliens since the moment government officials introduced it in the 1950s. (These days, the official term is UAPs, for “unexplained aerial phenomena.”) UFOs have classically been depicted as saucers, but sightings of all sorts of objects have been mistaken for the otherworldly over the years: military aircraft, drones, floating lanterns, meteors, weather events, birds, the afterglow of rocket launches—even the planet Venus, on its brightest days. And, of course, balloons. One of the most famous UFO sightings, over Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, turned out to be a high-altitude balloon belonging to the Air Force.
The first (and typically secretive) government programs dedicated to identifying UFOs emerged around that time, and they’ve been contending with civilian sightings ever since. Last year, the Defense Department established a new office to spot and identify “anomalous” objects flying around its military installations. In a recent analysis of 366 UAP sightings, the office characterized 163—about 45 percent of reports—as “balloon or balloon-like entities.” Some reports turn out to not concern objects at all: One of the most intriguing UFO videos in recent years was found by a Pentagon analysis to be the result of a quirk of camera equipment. Another widely circulated video that captured a fast-moving object was explained away as an optical illusion.
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This is the great disappointment of UFOs. Sightings get “debunked,” and those that are unexplained—requiring “further analysis,” as the Defense Department puts it—usually stay that way. And any unanswered questions are a matter of national security, not ET; government officials said that when the Chinese balloon was spotted, they “acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information”—hardly a cosmically thrilling response. To this day, there has been no definitive evidence that any UAPs merit existential panic. The atmosphere is a bad place to look for such signs, anyway. As I’ve written before, if aliens exist (or once existed), their stories are probably playing out (or once did) light-years from Earth.
You know what is everywhere? Balloons. Eyewitness reports put the Chinese spy balloon over Missouri this afternoon. Canadian officials said yesterday that they were monitoring what could be another high-altitude balloon. As I was writing this story, I looked out my apartment window and saw a party balloon zooming over the rooftops. An alien explanation would have been great for my career. But we haven’t found such an answer to that grand question yet, not in our atmosphere or beyond it. We must settle for this: In a universe where the truth about aliens is out there but difficult to find, we can have at least one balloon-shaped truth.