Chinese Spy Balloon Tracker Raises Questions About Why It Wasn't Shot Down

A graph circulating on social media that purports to show the reverse trajectory of a suspected Chinese spy balloon has raised questions as to why it wasn't shot down, since weather data shows it would have originated from mainland China.

The U.S. is tracking the object, which has been over U.S. airspace for a few days, but the Pentagon has decided not to shoot it down over safety concerns for people on the ground.

A senior defense official told reporters that the Pentagon had "very high confidence" that it was a Chinese high-altitude balloon collecting information about sensitive sites within America, according to the Associated Press. Montana is home to one of America's three domestic nuclear missile silo fields.

China has said it was looking into the reports, and that it had no intention of violating U.S. airspace.

Pentagon and Mystery Balloon
The Pentagon building pictured with an inset of NOAA map of the balloon's likely path towards the U.S.

On Thursday evening, Dan Satterfield tweeted that he had reproduced the predicted trajectory of the balloon using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) modeling to reverse-engineer the likely path the balloon would have taken in the preceding five days before it was spotted in Billings, Montana, given the weather patterns across the Northern Hemisphere.

Using the NOAA's HYSPLIT model, a system for computing air parcel trajectories, it showed that the likely path of the balloon fell over western Canada, across Alaska, South Korea and originating in the Chinese mainland. Newsweek was able to independently verify the trajectory, but received a different result for its position in China 120 hours before it was sighted in Montana.

Satterfield then used the model to predict that the balloon would travel over the Midwest, and by 7 a.m. ET on Saturday it would be somewhere over southeast Missouri. Other predictions suggest it would then travel towards the border between the Carolinas.

However, Satterfield assumed that the height of the balloon over Montana when forecasting its origin point was 14,000 meters, and forecasting its forward trajectory of 20,000 meters. U.S. officials have not given an indication of the elevation of the balloon beyond saying it was a stratospheric object—a layer of the atmosphere that starts anywhere between 6,000 and 12,000 meters above the earth's surface.

The graph has prompted questions as to why the balloon wasn't shot down by the U.S. when it was over territory closer to China.

Adam Housley, a journalist and former baseball player, tweeted: "How the hell did this not get shot down over Alaska? Aaaaand spare me the idea that it would hit populated areas in Montana. We shot down a rogue satellite a few years ago."

Meanwhile, Georgia Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green hit out at the Biden administration, calling it "impotent" for not shooting the balloon down. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican senator for Tennessee asked: "Why won't Biden shoot down the Chinese spy balloon that is currently flying over the United States?"

A senior administration official told the Associated Press that President Joe Biden had been briefed on the matter and had asked for military options. However, Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, and Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against "kinetic action" over safety concerns—a recommendation Biden accepted.

A senior defense official told CNBC that there had been a window on Wednesday when the U.S. military could have taken the balloon down while it was flying over Montana. NORAD scrambled aircraft including F-22 Raptors from Nellis Air Force Base on February 1.

NOAA Spy Balloon path
A map of the predicted flight path of the balloon 120 hours before reaching Montana, assuming it was over over the U.S. state at midnight on February 1, 2023 with an elevation of 14,000 meters. NOAA

The U.S. is continuing to track the balloon, Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement, adding that the balloon "does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground."

In a letter to Austin, Republican senator for Montana Steve Daines said that the balloon's presence over Montana, which has a nuclear silo field at the Malmstrom Air Force Base, "creates significant concern" that U.S. nuclear missile fields "are the target of this intelligence gathering mission." In a tweet he said that the administration has "failed to protect our skies."

"Currently we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective over and above what the [People's Republic of China] can do through other means," a senior defense official told CNBC. "Nevertheless, we are taking all necessary steps to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information."

Newsweek has contacted the Department of Defense for further comment.