The US military has shot down a third flying object over North American airspace in three days, as the air force general overseeing the airspace said he would not rule out any explanation for the objects yet.
The high-altitude unidentified object, described as an “octagonal structure” with strings attached to it, was shot down over Lake Huron in Michigan on Sunday.
It is understood to have been the same item that was picked up by radar over Montana on Saturday. At the point it was struck by an air-to-air missile launched by F-16 fighter jets, it had been flying across the Great Lakes region at 20,000ft, a height that could have posed a risk to civilian aircraft.
“I’m glad to report it has been swiftly, safely and securely taken down,” the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, said.
The Pentagon said the object appeared to have travelled near US military sites and posed a threat to civilian aviation, as well as being a potential tool for surveillance.
Three unidentified flying objects have been downed in as many days, after a large balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on 4 February. That object was claimed by China, although Beijing has insisted it was involved in innocent weather research.
Gen Glen VanHerck, who is tasked with safeguarding US airspace, said the military had not been able to identify what the three most recent objects were, how they stayed aloft, or where they were coming from.
VanHerck said the US had adjusted its radar so it could track slower objects, and that the three most recent objects were being called, “objects, not balloons, for a reason”.
Asked whether he had ruled out extraterrestrials, VanHerck said: “I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven’t ruled out anything.”
A defence official subsequently told Reuters that the military had not seen any evidence that the objects were extraterrestrial.
Military personnel equipped with specialist diving gear designed for the extremely cold water of Lake Huron were expected to be deployed quickly to search for pieces of the destroyed object.
On Friday, an object about the size of a small car was downed off the coast of Alaska, followed by a similar flying object over Yukon, in Canada, on Saturday.
The US and Canadian military are attempting to recover the other objects that were shot down last week. Searches via sea and land are operating amid severe weather conditions.
The Democratic majority leader of the US Senate, Chuck Schumer, told ABC’s This Week on Sunday he had been briefed by the White House and that officials were now convinced that all of the first three flying objects were balloons. He put the finger of blame firmly on China.
“The Chinese were humiliated – I think the Chinese were caught lying,” he said. “It’s a real setback for them.”
Hours later a spokesperson for the White House national security council tried to tamp down some of Schumer’s rhetoric, saying it was too early to characterise the two latest flying objects shot down over Alaska and Canada. Definitive answers would have to wait for the debris to be recovered, the official said.
Schumer said US military and intelligence agencies were “focused like a laser” on gathering information on the flying objects and then analysing what steps needed to be taken to protect American interests in future. He called it “wild” that the US government had no idea about the balloon spying program until just “a few months ago”.
The Canadian military were attempting to reach pieces of the object that was taken down within Canadian airspace on Saturday. The vessel fell over a remote, rugged area of Yukon.
The object, described as cylindrical, had been flying at 40,000ft over Canadian territory and was considered a risk to civilian air traffic.
Searches by the US military were also continuing in difficult circumstances off the coasts of Alaska and South Carolina, with some debris from the first balloon to be destroyed – the largest of the four objects – having been retrieved and taken to military laboratories for analysis.
Though the Chinese government has admitted owning the balloon, it has insisted it was used only for weather research.
The Pentagon has disputed this, saying early indications suggest the balloon was carrying powerful equipment that could intercept communications. The balloon, flying at 60,000ft, was tracked by the US military for several days as it traversed the national airspace, having initially been spotted off the coast of Alaska on 28 January.
The air force decided to wait until it was over the Atlantic before shooting it down out of concern for civilians on the ground, the Pentagon said.
Schumer defended that decision on Sunday against mounting criticism from Republicans who have castigated Joe Biden for failing to act immediately. By following the balloon across the country, the US had gained “enormous intelligence” on what the Chinese were doing, he said.
Schumer predicted the entire object would be pieced back together in the coming days. “That’s a huge coup for the United States,” he told ABC’s This Week.
The confluence of four downed flying objects in a week has raised tensions on both sides of the US and Canadian border. and has generated political stresses internationally. The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, postponed the first visit to Beijing by a senior US diplomat since 2018 in response to the intrusion of the Chinese balloon.
In China, local news outlets cited by Bloomberg News reported on Sunday that the government was preparing to bring down an unidentified flying object said to have been spotted over the port of Qingdao. Fishers in the area had been told to be alert, according to the reports.
Reuters contributed to this report