The Chinese balloon that plagued news cycles and people’s social media feeds last week was finally recovered in the Atlantic Ocean.
Photos released by the U.S. Fleet Forces showed Navy sailors on Feb. 5 collecting the remains of a "high-altitude surveillance balloon" off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The balloon was shot down on Saturday following President Joe Biden’s orders to wait until the balloon was off the Carolina coastline, saying military advisers assessed that downing it over water "created a greater possibility that we could effectively exploit the wreckage than if it were shot down over land."
That was in addition to the warnings from the Pentagon of a potential risk to Americans on the ground.
U.S. Navy sailors recovering a "high-altitude surveillance balloon" off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on Feb. 5. (US Fleet Forces)
"Once it came over to the United States, from Canada, I told the Defense Department I wanted to shoot it down as soon as it was appropriate," Biden said. The military concluded "we should not shoot it down over land, it was not a serious threat."
The debris landed in 47 feet of water, shallower than officials had expected, and it spread out over roughly seven miles and the recovery operation included several ships.
The route of the Chinese suspected spy balloon. Source: DoD, AP
This was not the first time a mysterious balloon ventured into U.S. airspace.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking at an event hosted by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, said as part of the surveillance improvements since Biden took office, "we were able to go back and look at the historical patterns" and uncover "multiple instances" during the Trump administration in which Chinese surveillance balloons traversed American airspace and territory.
Before Monday, U.S. officials had said that at least three times during the Trump administration and at least one other time during Biden’s time as president balloons have crossed American airspace, but not for this long. In those instances, the U.S. determined the balloons belonged to China only after they had left the country’s airspace, said Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command.
"I will tell you that we did not detect those threats," VanHerck said of his military command. "And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out." He added that the U.S. intelligence community "after the fact" informed his command about the balloons.
VanHerck described the debris spreading on the waters over "15 football fields by 15 football fields square."
"The payload itself, I would categorize that as a jet airliner type of size, maybe a regional jet. ... Probably weighed in excess of a couple thousand pounds," he said.
Sullivan said the U.S. was "still piecing through" which Chinese officials knew what about the balloon and would not speak publicly yet about U.S. assessments about China's intentions flying it over the U.S.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.