By Gareth Evans
The US military is unsure what three flying objects it shot out of the skies over North America were – and how they were able to stay aloft.
President Joe Biden ordered another object – the fourth in total this month – to be downed on Sunday.
As it was traveling at 20,000ft (6,100m), it could have interfered with commercial air traffic, the US said.
A military commander said it could be a “gaseous type of balloon” or “some type of a propulsion system”.
He added he could not rule out that the objects were extra-terrestrials.
The latest object – shot down over Lake Huron in Michigan near the Canadian border – has been described by defence officials as an unmanned “octagonal structure” with strings attached to it.
It was downed by a missile fired from an F-16 fighter jet at 14:42 local time (19:42 GMT).
The incident raises further questions about the spate of high-altitude objects that have been shot down over North America this month.
US Northern Command Commander General Glen VanHerck said that there was no indication of any threat.
“I’m not going to categorise them as balloons. We’re calling them objects for a reason,” he said.
“What we are seeing is very, very small objects that produce a very, very low radar cross-section,” he added.
Speculation as to what the objects may be has intensified in recent days.
“I will let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out,” Gen VanHerck said when asked if it was possible the objects are aliens or extra-terrestrials.
“I haven’t ruled out anything at this point.”
A suspected Chinese spy balloon was downed off the coast of South Carolina on 4 February after hovering for days over the US. Officials said it originated in China and had been used to monitor sensitive sites.
China denied the object was used for spying and said it was a weather monitoring device that had blown astray. The incident – and the angry exchanges in its aftermath – ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Beijing.
But on Sunday, a defence official said the US had communicated with Beijing about the first object, after receiving no response for several days. It was not immediately clear what was discussed.
Since that first incident, American fighter jets have shot down three further high-altitude objects in as many days.
President Biden ordered an object to be shot down over northern Alaska on Friday, and on Saturday a similar object was shot down over the Yukon in north-western Canada.
Both the US and Canada are still working to recover the remnants, but the search in Alaska has been hampered by Arctic conditions.
“These objects did not closely resemble, and were much smaller than, the [4 February] balloon and we will not definitively characterise them until we can recover the debris,” a White House National Security spokesperson said.
Unidentified flying objects – timeline
4 February: US military shoots down suspected surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina. It had drifted for days over the US, and officials said it came from China and had been monitoring sensitive sites
10 February: US downs another object off northern Alaska which officials said lacked any system of propulsion or control
11 February: An American fighter jet shoots down a “high-altitude airborne object” over Canada’s Yukon territory, about 100 miles (160 km) from the US border. It was described as cylindrical and smaller than the first balloon
12 February: US jets shoot down a fourth high-altitude object near Lake Huron “out of an abundance of caution”
One senior official told ABC News that the three most recent objects to be shot down were likely weather devices and not surveillance balloons.
But this was seemingly contradicted by the top Democrat in Congress, who earlier told the broadcaster that intelligence officials believed the objects were in fact surveillance balloons.
“They believe they were [balloons], yes,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, adding that they were “much smaller” than the first one shot down off the South Carolina coast.
Democrat Debbie Dingell, one of several Michigan members of Congress who applauded the military for downing the object over the state on Sunday, joined growing calls for the White House and defence officials to provide more information.
“We need the facts about where they are originating from, what their purpose is, and why their frequency is increasing,” she said.
Democratic Senator Jon Tester, who represents Montana, told the BBC’s US partner CBS: “What’s gone on the last two weeks or so… has been nothing short of craziness. And the military needs to have a plan to not only determine what’s out there, but determine the dangers.”
Republicans have repeatedly criticised the Biden administration for its handling of the first suspected spy balloon, saying it should have been shot down far sooner.
Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the UK would conduct a security review following the recent incidents in the US and Canada.
“This development is another sign of how the global threat picture is changing for the worse,” he said.