By: Rob Garver
After days of speculation about the origins of the unidentified flying objects that U.S. fighter jets shot down over Alaska and Canada last week, an Illinois-based club for balloon hobbyists might have an answer.
The Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade (NIBBB), a group that launches small, lightweight balloons equipped with GPS trackers, transmitters and antennas, announced in a blog post that one of its balloons had not transmitted its location since traveling toward the region where a U.S. F-22, on February 11, used a missile to destroy a “high-altitude object” that was deemed to be a threat to commercial aviation.
Last week, the organization posted information to its website indicating that the last recorded communication from the balloon, with the call sign K9YO, occurred on February 11 and indicated that it was located off the southern coast of Alaska, and traveling east, in the direction of Canada’s Yukon province.
“Since we have not found a transmission from that balloon since that time, we have declared it ‘Missing In Action,’” the group wrote on its website.
In the space of three days last week, U.S. jets shot down three separate unidentified, unmanned objects, all of which were described as relatively small and slow-moving. The trio of shoot-downs came just days after the U.S. destroyed what is believed to have been a Chinese espionage balloon, which was many times larger.
The presence of the Chinese balloon, which was allowed to traverse the country from west to east before being shot down over the Atlantic Ocean, was fodder for critics of President Joe Biden, who demanded to know why he waited so long to take action.
For its part, the Biden administration has said that the balloon was large and heavy, and that shooting it down over land presented a risk to civilians. Additionally, it said that because it was easily tracked, U.S. military authorities were able to take measures to assure that it was not able to gather highly sensitive information.
General Glen VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), said that in response to the Chinese balloon, U.S. air defense radar has been adjusted to identify smaller, slower craft, likely resulting in the identification of the three objects shot down last week.
Officials have said the objects that were shot down were probably civilian or scientific devices that posed little threat, except to aircraft flying at the same altitude.
In a news briefing Friday afternoon, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby was asked about the possibility that the U.S. had shot down the “missing” balloon belonging to the NIBBB.
“We can’t confirm those reports,” Kirby said, pointing out that all three objects had been shot down over remote and inaccessible areas, and had not been recovered. He also said that it is possible they will never be recovered.
Kirby was asked if the decision to shoot down the three objects was an overreaction by Biden, perhaps in response to criticism that he had acted too slowly to destroy the Chinese balloon.
“Given the situation we were in, the information available, and the recommendation of our military commanders, it was exactly the right thing to do at exactly the right time,” Kirby said.
Even as he defended the three shoot-downs, Kirby conceded that the administration and U.S. defense officials are establishing new protocols for dealing with the greater number of flying objects being detected by the military’s newly adjusted radar systems.
Biden alluded Thursday to the creation of new rules for dealing with unidentified aircraft. He said the guidelines for making decisions about whether to shoot down a craft would remain classified, but would be shared with a few members of Congress.
He also made it clear that there may be other instances in which the U.S. military is ordered to destroy an unidentified aircraft. "If any object presents a threat to the safety, security of the American people, I will take it down," he said.
Biden’s Republican critics in Congress have hammered his administration for failing to provide detailed information about the objects that were shot down, and about the rationale behind the administration’s actions.
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the “so-called classified briefings” that administration officials had provided members of Congress.
"We've been in the briefing [but] they don't seem to know anything,” McConnell said in an interview with Fox News. “So we're anxious to hear what analysis, if any, they've been able to achieve on the Chinese balloon. And to just get a sense of what these other three actually were."
Kirby said Friday that the remains of the Chinese balloon, recovered by the Navy, were still being analyzed by the FBI.
The device launched by the NIBBB was one of a class of devices known as “pico balloons,” which have been of growing interest among hobbyists for several years. Pico balloons are generally small, inexpensive sheaths of mylar or another lightweight material that are filled with hydrogen. The monitoring and transmission devices are connected to the balloon by a tether, and the entire package weighs less than 1 ounce.
The transmissions sent by the balloons are tracked by amateur radio operators, and reports are shared online.
The NIBBB did not return a request for comment. (KB/VOA)