It appears to be an invasion — but what kind?
The United States shot down another mysterious flying object over North America on Sunday, the fourth in a dramatic series of engagements that began with the downing of a suspected Chinese spy balloon a week ago.
The latest device — described as an octagonal structure with strings hanging off it — was shot down over Lake Huron on the US-Canadian border by an F-16 fighter jet on the orders of President Joe Biden “out of abundance of caution”, a senior administration official said.
That came after two other objects were downed — one over Canada’s Yukon territory on Saturday, and one over Alaska on Friday — both of which appeared to be balloons but “much smaller” than the first large one, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told America’s ABC.
Canadian officials described the “high-altitude airborne object” shot down by a US F-22 jet about 160 kilometres north of the border as small and cylindrical, roughly the size of a Volkswagen car.
The Alaskan object, which was also described by US officials as cylindrical, reportedly “interfered with [the] sensors” on the F-35 fighter jets sent to investigate, an anonymous intelligence source told CNN.
China acknowledged it owned the balloon shot down on February 4 off the US east coast but insisted it was a weather balloon blown off course.
Only the first balloon has so far been attributed to Beijing, with officials yet to determine who launched the latest objects or their purpose.
The three latest objects have all been observed at much lower altidues than the suspected Chinese spy balloon, which hovered at around 18,000m.
The Michigan object was shot down at 6000m, while the ones in Alaska and Canada were at about 12,000m. Commercial aircraft typically operate between 10,000 and 12,000m.
With little official information being provided amid the unprecedented scenes of warplanes shooting down potentially hostile objects over US airspace, jittery Americans have turned to frenzied speculation.
So what are the leading theories?
General Glen VanHerck, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), said in a media call on Sunday that he had not ruled out aliens.
“I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out, I haven’t ruled out anything at this point,” he said.
“We continue to assess every threat, potential threat, unknown, that approaches North America with an attempt to identify.”
General VanHerck stressed that “we’re calling them objects, not balloons, for a reason”.
“I’m not able to categorise how they stay aloft,” he said. “It could be a gaseous type of balloon inside a structure or it could be some type of a propulsion system.”
Social media users have naturally embraced the “alien invasion” theory as the most entertaining explanation.
“Sorry not interested in any far-fetched conspiracy theories that the UFOs are something other than extraterrestrial spacecrafts,” tweeted Daily Wire host Matt Walsh.
CNN producer Gabe Ramirez wrote, “Today is like an opening scene to every 80s/90s alien invasion movie. People getting ready for their Super Bowl parties, while the invaders are just starting to orbit earth.”
Barron’s journalist Josh Nathan-Kazis wrote over the weekend, “I just think it’s sort of a big deal that there is a non-zero chance that the US shot down two extraterrestrial airships in the past two days? I’m not saying I think it’s probably aliens! I’m just saying that it’s not definitely not aliens, and also we’re shooting at them.”
Podcaster Patrick Hinds joked, “We are experiencing literally the laziest alien invasion possible.”
But according to The New York Times, Biden administration officials have sought to privately calm fears over what at times has seemed like an invasion of unidentified flying objects.
“The incursions seemed to become so common that Biden administration officials have found themselves issuing private assurances that there is no evidence that they involve extraterrestrial activity,” the newspaper wrote on Sunday.
“But officials also acknowledge privately that the longer they are unable to provide a public explanation for the provenance of the objects, the more speculation grows.”
Beijing is the most obvious suspect given its acknowledgment that it owned the first balloon and the backdrop of acute tensions between the US and China.
US officials said last week that the balloon was part of a “surveillance fleet” deployed by the Chinese military that has targeted more than 40 countries across five continents.
A senior Republican on Sunday accused Beijing of “an act of belligerence” regarding the first object, a Chinese balloon shot down February 4 off the coast of South Carolina after American officials said it was engaged in spying.
“It was done with provocation to gather intelligence data, and collect intelligence on our three major nuclear sites,” Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CBS.
Republicans have harshly criticised Biden for allowing the first balloon to drift for days across the country — potentially gathering sensitive intelligence — before having it shot down.
Mr Schumer on Sunday defended Biden’s handling, telling ABC an analysis of recovered debris would represent “a huge coup for the United States”.
But Mr Biden has faced bipartisan calls for greater transparency. “I have real concerns about why the administration is not being more forthcoming,” Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told NBC.
US officials told The Wall Street Journal on Sunday that after the first balloon, NORAD began to more closely examine raw radar data, “leading to the discovery of radar signatures previously unseen”.
“The data has led to a constellation of newly discovered objects that the US is determining how to deal with in real time,” the newspaper wrote.
One of the officials told The Wall Street Journal that “what we are doing is changing how we visualise the raw radar data”.
“What we’re seeing is very very small objects,” General VanHerck said in Sunday’s media call.
Online conspiracy theorists, meanwhile, have dismissed the latest UFO wave as a “psy-op” being waged by the US government.
Conspiracy podcast host Stew Peters, who was banned from Spotify in 2021 for spreading Covid misinformation, slammed the UFO reports as “fake”.
“We’re supposed to believe US pilots shot down an object over Canadian airspace but we let a massive spy balloon slowly float over US airspace for days without shooting it down. This is all FAKE!” he wrote on Twitter.
He later added, “EXPLANATION OF FAKE UFO ‘reports’: Our government doesn’t know how to govern unless they create some kind of fake threat to drag us into an entirely phony war.”
Conservative YouTube comedians the Hodge Twins tweeted, “We going straight from the Covid Plandemic into some Alien invasion psy-op.”
Former professional baseball player Aubrey Huff wrote, “Calm down everyone. What you’re seeing in the sky isn’t from another planet. It’s Project Blue Beam to once again scare, confuse and distort the truth so we remain compliant and reliant on corrupt governments.”
Project Blue Beam is a conspiracy theory, first floated in 1994 by Canadian journalist Serge Monast, that claims NASA and the United Nations will attempt to establish the “New World Order” using advanced technology to put on a gigantic 3D space show.
According to the theory, the holographic display — created in co-operation with the Antichrist — would simulate the Second Coming tailored to each faith, with each depiction of the Messiah then merging into one to abolish the world’s religions.
“Social engineering for Project Blue Beam takes another step forward,” tweeted far-right YouTuber Paul Joseph Watson.
It has long been noted that Monast’s Project Blue Beam concept was essentially the same as Gene Roddenberry’ original screenplay for the 1975 Star Trek movie, which was scrapped but later published as a novel.
In a similar but more down-to-earth vein, another school of thought argues that the US government is hyping up the “spy balloon” threat to prepare the public for conflict with Beijing.
Patrick Macfarlane from the anti-war Libertarian Institute wrote last week that the “overblown” balloon headlines were inflating a “false narrative” on China.
“No singular event in this seemingly inevitable march to war is more emblematic of the American public’s warped psyche than the ‘Chinese Spy Balloon’ narrative — perhaps due, in part, to its facial absurdity,” he wrote.
“Indeed, even the pervasive use of the phrase ‘Chinese Spy Balloon’ — an utterly unsupported Pentagon accusation — is emblematic of the absolutely captured state of the American consciousness. This narrative control is critical to Washington as it manufactures consent for its declared ‘great power competition’ with Beijing.”
Macfarlane argued that the Pentagon had “not tendered a shred of evidence” to support the claim that the first balloon was a surveillance device.
“It would make little sense for the PRC to launch surveillance balloons across the United States because, as stated during the Pentagon’s initial press briefing, “[the balloon] does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit,” he said.
“As the balloon made its way from Montana to South Carolina, the American people were whipped into predictable histrionics, with most politicians calling for the balloon to be shot down.”
He concluded, “Distressingly, the American public exhibited its eagerness to rush to just about any conclusion concerning China. That rush to judgment — and violent action — should concern us more than the spectre of a wayward white spy balloon.”
— with AFP