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What we know about the alleged Chinese government spy balloon

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The U.S. military continues to monitor what they say is a Chinese surveillance balloon floating high over the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT RYDER: While we won't get into specifics in regards to the exact location, I can tell you that the balloon continues to move eastward and is currently over the center of the continental United States.

DETROW: That was Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder at a press briefing earlier today as he pushed back on China's claims the balloon is simply a meteorological civilian airship gone astray. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more on what the balloon might be up to.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: If you're feeling confused by these reports of a Chinese spy balloon, you're not alone.

JAMES FLATEN: This is a little weird.

BRUMFIEL: James Flaten works at the University of Minnesota flying research balloons for NASA. He says this balloon does look like it's designed to stay aloft for long periods.

FLATEN: One thing you can see in this photograph is that it clearly has solar panels. In other words, this is intended to stay up for a long time and be able to power itself.

BRUMFIEL: The Pentagon says it's floating at 60,000 feet. That puts it in the stratosphere. China says it's a meteorological research balloon that's wandered astray, but Flaten thinks it's too fancy for that.

FLATEN: If that's really all you're interested in, weather, this is not the right kind of balloon to do it. You want balloons that are way smaller, way less expensive, and perhaps way more frequent than this sort of thing.

BRUMFIEL: Flaten says it is possible that this balloon was launched from Chinese soil and drifted thousands of miles to the United States. In fact, adversaries have sent balloons in the past.

FLATEN: Oddly enough, Japan during World War II had a ballooning program and succeeded in getting some incendiary devices delivered by balloon which landed in the United States.

BRUMFIEL: But they didn't do much damage. They were tough to control and came down in random spots. Which raises the obvious question - if balloons didn't work 80 years ago, why use them now?

FLATEN: Why would somebody bother flying something on a balloon when you have satellites in place which might have even fancier equipment?

BRUMFIEL: In fact, the Pentagon says it believes this spy balloon doesn't significantly improve China's ability to gather intelligence with its satellites.

JEFFREY LEWIS: I don't really understand what they're doing here.

BRUMFIEL: Jeffrey Lewis is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Lewis tracks nuclear weapons. And some have speculated China may be using its balloon to drift over sensitive nuclear missile sites. He's skeptical. These missile bases are decades old and they're already visible on Google Maps.

LEWIS: The location of them is not particularly secret. Their appearance is not particularly secret.

BRUMFIEL: Lewis concedes that the Chinese government may be learning a little bit from its spy balloon, but he thinks it's not worth blowing up delicate diplomatic ties with the U.S.

LEWIS: That balloon is a floating intelligence failure. And I hope it comes down.

BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.