The US says it has recovered key sensors from the suspected Chinese spy balloon it shot down as tensions between the countries escalated.
The Chinese balloon, which Beijing denies was a government spy vessel, spent a week flying over the US and Canada before President Joe Biden ordered it to be shot down off the South Carolina coast.
The US military’s northern command said in a statement: “Crews have been able to recover significant debris from the site, including all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified as well as large sections of the structure.”
The downing of the balloon on 4 February has been followed by a further three unidentified objects being shot down over North American airspace.
The US has admitted that much about the most recent, unmanned objects remains unknown, including how they stay aloft, who built them and whether they may have been collecting intelligence.
The White House says it has determined that China has a “high-altitude balloon programme” for intelligence gathering.
The US had been tracking the balloon as it lifted off from Hainan Island in southern China in late January, the New York Times reported.
Meanwhile, a suspected high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon flew near sensitive US military sites in the Middle East last year, but it was far enough offshore that it was not deemed a threat, the newspaper said.
The Japanese government has reportedly concluded an object that flew over its waters near the southwestern region of Kyushu in January 2022 was mostly likely a Chinese spy balloon.
The US has not yet recovered any debris from the three most recent objects shot down, one of which fell off the coast of Alaska in ice and snow.
One object was shot down over the Yukon territory in Canada.
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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the four aerial objects were somehow connected, without elaborating.
He said: “Obviously there is some sort of pattern in there, the fact we are seeing this in a significant degree over the past week is a cause for interest and close attention.
China has said US high-altitude balloons have flown over its airspace more than 10 times over the past year – a claim that Washington rejects.
What we know so far about the flying objects:
• On 4 February, the first object, described by US officials as a suspected Chinese “spy” balloon, was shot down off the Carolina coast;
• On 10 February, a second object, described as being “about the size of a small car” was spotted by NORAD near Alaska and downed;
• Just a day later, on 11 February, a third object, again unidentified, was tracked entering US airspace over Alaska before drifting over Canada and was shot down;
• On Sunday, US officials confirmed another unidentified object had been shot down by fighter jets over Lake Huron on the US-Canada border near Michigan;
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• A US F-16 jet fired a missile at about 20,000ft at the latest object amid concerns that its altitude and flightpath could endanger civilian planes;
• A senior US official, speaking anonymously, described the latest object as having “an octagonal structure with strings hanging off but no discernible payload”;
• Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said teams were searching for the object shot down over his country.