A Chinese balloon that flew across North America for more than a week was designed to intercept and geolocate communications, the US government has claimed.

The balloon was shot down over the Atlantic after captivating US media and citizens' attention. The Chinese government has maintained that the airship was simply a wayward weather balloon.

– Chase Doak/Wikimedia Commons

A senior State Department official claimed that the balloon was equipped with multiple antennas capable of "intelligence collection operations," and featured "multiple active intelligence collection sensors" as well as sensors for geolocating communications.

The balloon may have collected data from radio, cell phones, and other communications from military bases.

The US government claimed that several such balloons traveled over the US during the prior administration, and that it believed similar balloons have also operated over South America, South East Asia, East Asia, and Europe.

Chinese balloons and drones may have also been responsible for a spate of UFO (also known as Unexplained Anomalous Phenomena, UAPs) sightings by US military personnel in recent years.

American forces have also used spy balloons in the past, along with satellites, planes, and drones. Known uses include as high-altitude surveillance platforms in Afghanistan.

In 2019, the US launched 'Cold Star' (COvert Long Dwell STratospheric ARchitecture), an effort to develop high-altitude surveillance balloons for use over countries like Russia and China. One military document notes: "Survivability and Cost: Stratospheric flight/low-radar cross-section makes high altitude difficult to target, but when targeted, adversaries’ targeting costs favor the Army."

Two years later, the country also proposed using high-altitude balloons made by Raven Aerostar to beam Internet connectivity to Cuba.

Raven was a contractor on Alphabet's Loon project, a high-profile effort to cover the entire world in Internet-providing balloons, which was closed in 2021 (here's what went wrong).

The current 'Chinese spy balloon' controversy has also impacted efforts to improve US-Sino relations, which deteriorated under the Trump administration, and remain strained.

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