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Balloon over Colorado not a threat, but another "what is it?"

Military says high-altitude balloon detected over Western U.S. doesn't pose a threat
Military says high-altitude balloon detected over Western U.S. doesn't pose a threat 03:22

Defense officials say there is no threat from a high-altitude balloon that floated across parts of the western U.S., including parts of Colorado and Utah on Friday.

NORAD, or the North American Aerospace Defense Command -- a joint U.S.-Canadian airspace defense organization -- in Colorado Springs confirmed it had detected the object and sent aircraft to investigate the balloon, which it intercepted over Utah. They did not shoot it down and are continuing to track the balloon to ensure there is no hazard to aviation.

"It's not clear where this particular object today originated from. And that's one of the challenges with balloons," said Iain Boyd, director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

RELATED: Department of Defense says high-altitude balloon detected over Western U.S. is hobbyist balloon

One official told CBS News the balloon appeared to be made of mylar with a cube-shaped box, about two feet long on each side, hanging below it.

It comes about a year after a much larger Chinese balloon the U.S. feared was spying was cruising across the United States carrying about two box cars worth of equipment. The U.S. military eventually shot that balloon down off the coast of the Carolinas.

"There's got to have been thousands of flights of balloons. And so it's interesting that this one has popped up," said Boyd.


The military said it was likely floating at between 43,000 and 45,000 feet. The U.S. has been far more sensitive about such craft since the 2023 incident. It became a major diplomatic dustup as well as a hot-button issue in domestic politics.

"The last thing I would be doing anytime soon, unless I really wanted to aggravate the U.S., was to fly a spy balloon over the U.S. after all the hoopla that happened last year," said Boyd.

Balloons, he points out are more valuable for lower-altitude photography than satellites. But they are not particularly controllable and not stealthy. "A balloon is still a pretty large object. It's not invisible."

NORAD celebrates its 60th Anniversary
A small group of media was allowed an inside look at the command center at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station on May 10, 2018, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. NORAD celebrates its 60th Anniversary at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Balloons are effective for some defense purposes, but as offensive weapons, drones are certainly more maneuverable, as is being shown in conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. But if a craft were to be coming from overseas, options might be limited.

"It's not possible to fly a drone from China to the U.S.," said Boyd.

RELATED: Drones take over

The balloon intercepted over Utah was not maneuverable said the U.S. military. There are many balloons in the air at high altitudes at just about any given time. There is no system, Boyd pointed out, for establishing their intended or actual path. Creating such a system would, at the least, be quite expensive and, at best, of limited purpose, but U.S. defense forces appear to be paying more attention than a year ago.

"It seems like the process has worked better than it did a year ago," Boyd said. "And so all of that is a good thing so in the end, we really want to understand everything that's flying above us in our airspace."

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