US military and intelligence agencies were tracking the balloon since its launch from a base on the island located near the southern coast of China. Now, officials are looking into the possibility that it could have drifted off the path, reported The Washington Post.
Officials said the balloon, which was downed off the coast of South Carolina on 4 February, was monitored for almost a week before its incursion into North American airspace.
The downing of the balloon flared up hostilities between the two world powers, prompting a series of accusations and counter-allegations. Beijing insists that the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft.
The balloon initially appeared to have been heading towards Guam, but somewhere along the route, it took an unexpected turn towards the north.
It travelled over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on 28 January, thousands of miles away from Guam, then drifted over to Canada, where strong winds pushed the craft south into the continental US on 31 January, an official told the American daily on the condition of anonymity.
Although it is uncertain if the turn was intentional, US intelligence still believes the craft was on its way to spy on Washington’s military installations in the Pacific Ocean.
“This was a discrete programme – part of a larger set of programmes that are about gaining greater clarity about military facilities in the United States and in a variety of other countries,” a senior officer said, referring to Beijing’s massive air surveillance efforts that included elite satellite systems.
The balloon was launched from the ground as a part of a programme by the Chinese air force, officials said. The craft was partly directed by air currents and partly piloted remotely, according to them.
Washington had earlier said that the balloon had the ability to manoeuver itself, given it had propellers and a rudder.
Satellite images captured by Planet Labs and reviewed by Researchers at the Middlebury Institute (MIIS) show the presence of a facility on Hainan Island. However, it remains unclear if the balloon that crossed into the US was launched from the same facility.
“We believe this is the best launch site candidate on the island, especially as it has previously hosted aerostats,” Sam Lair, a researcher with MIIS, told the Rolling Stone magazine.
“The facility is surrounded by a perimeter security fence and also includes three large radomes,” the researcher said. The image captured mid January showed a 140-metre launch pad with apparent launch equipment.
“These balloons have provided limited additive capabilities to the [People’s Republic of China’s] other intelligence platforms used over the United States,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on Monday.
“But in the future, if the PRC continues to advance this technology, it certainly could become more valuable to them.”
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