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The USA has recently created a hot sensation around the globe by shooting down four aerial objects, the most prominent one being the 'Chinese Balloon'. How does the USA even know that the balloon is Chinese even without investigating it physically?

The Chinese Balloon

Source: NBC News

I mean just look at this image. There is just some white fabric used to make the balloon and a solar panel. How can I say that it is Chinese or Russian or from North Korea?

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    In fairness, the missile they shot it down with was filled with Chinese components too, as was the plane and the camera used to take this picture
    – Valorum
    Feb 17, 2023 at 20:33
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    @Valorum do you have citations for those three claims?
    – Tim
    Feb 17, 2023 at 22:55

4 Answers 4

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China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has released several statements saying that it's from China, they know its capabilities and purpose, and that they regret letting it enter US airspace. All in all, it's clear that China agrees that it was a Chinese balloon.

On February 3rd, the day before it was shot down, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said during a Q&A:

Q: According to media reports, a Chinese unmanned airship appeared in the US airspace recently. What is China's comment?

A: The airship comes from China and is of a civilian nature, used for scientific research such as meteorology. Affected by the westerly wind and its own control ability is limited, the airship seriously deviated from the scheduled route. China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States due to force majeure.

And on February 5th, the day after it was shot down, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a more official statement, part of which says:

The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the US side after verification that the airship is for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure, which was completely accidental.

Both of those statements are on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' official site, and I'm relying on an auto-translator to get the English version. Even if some nuance is lost in translation, China doesn't seem to be denying at all that it's a Chinese balloon, and since they claim to know what it was and it was doing it's safe to say the balloon was from China.

How the US knew for sure it was a Chinese balloon likely isn't public information, however according to Pentagon Press Secretary Patrick Ryder and other Department of Defense officials this is not the first such balloon they've tracked so they have some familiarity. Some statements from Ryder and other officials from before the balloon was shot down can be found in this article on the Department of Defense's website:

The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now...The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely.

...

The official said this is not the first time such a balloon has been seen above the United States, but did say this time the balloon appears to be acting differently than what has been seen in the past.

"It's happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration," the official said. "It is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time, this time around...

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    I doubt China would have admitted it if the USA didn't already know it was from China somehow. So, this doesn't really answer the question: how did the USA know to begin with?
    – Brilliand
    Feb 17, 2023 at 6:03
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    @Brilliand Of course they would actually admit it if it were a civilian balloon. People tend to get annoyed when you shoot down their stuff. If it was not civilian... they would want to make the same statement anyway. Why wouldn't they?
    – Luaan
    Feb 17, 2023 at 12:14
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The existing answers give good background, but no information on how, without China's admission, the US would know to accuse China. Hopefully the below fills in the gap.

Assuming the balloon has no means of self-propulsion, we can track its path using knowledge of the weather conditions on previous days, how windy it was will dictate how far the balloon would have travelled given a particular altitude.

The below image was posted by the meteorologist Dan Satterfield with the message:

#DOD says high altitude balloon over Montana yesterday was a spy balloon from #China. I did a quick run of the #NOAA HYSPLIT model to trace backwards the path of an object. Using 14K meters over Montana yesterday I get the following - Yup Central China!

NOAA Model Tracking Balloon Trajectory

With the caveat that we don't know when the balloon was launched, so presumably it could have come from anywhere along that path.

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    There is certainly some error there. Shouldn't the possible paths become wider and wider, the more one goes back in time. Instead of a red line I would expect some area. Also there is the assumption "Assuming the balloon has no means of self-propulsion". But usually balloons can have that (going higher/lower). Feb 17, 2023 at 20:45
  • That balloon is said to have had some sort of propulsion and steering, though not enough to counter the conditions that allegedly blew it off course. Also the map, which is also used a lot elsewhere does not seem to fit the narrative, that the balloon was launched from the South China Coast, Hainan province. Feb 17, 2023 at 20:49
  • @blobbymcblobby we can't predict rain accurately past 3 days out and you're going to quibble about which part of China it's supposed to have come from? Feb 17, 2023 at 22:19
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    @candied_orange This is looking backwards, not forward. The limit is how accurately we know the air movement. Feb 18, 2023 at 3:32
  • @LorenPechtel and altitude. I thought it was impressive. Feb 18, 2023 at 11:31
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U.S. intelligence agencies tracked the Chinese spy balloon from its launch in China according to this news article.

U.S. intelligence agencies tracked the Chinese spy balloon from its launch in China and watched as it may have been inadvertently blown into U.S. airspace, a U.S. official has confirmed to ABC News.

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    Please include information from the link in your answer so that people don't need to leave the site to get a basic idea of your answer.
    – Joe W
    Feb 15, 2023 at 21:21
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    @JoeW What part of US tracking it from its launch in China doesn't answer the question "How did the US know it was Chinese?". If the counter is, well it could have been someone else that brought it to China to launch from there then no answer is going to be good enough because you could always fall back on, well it could have been someone else that did that to make it look like China was the owner/launcher/etc. Feb 17, 2023 at 10:57
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    @JoeW I think Dean MacGregor was saying that my answer DID include the answer to the OPs question. He was saying he didn't agree with your comment saying otherwise. I must say that I agree with him. The US saw the balloon launch from China. That IS the answer to the OPs question. But you are entitled to your opinion as well. Feb 17, 2023 at 16:21
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    @Joe W Explain it how? Define what the word tracking means? What are you looking for? Is it in the article somewhere? Feb 17, 2023 at 18:58
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    I'm confused. The cited article seems to contradict itself because it also says "The NSC declined to comment on whether the U.S. was tracking the Chinese balloon since it was launched.". Did the US track the balloon from launch or not?? Feb 17, 2023 at 20:42
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Just throwing in my two cents:

China's statement regarding the balloon (before shootdown incident):

The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.

https://www.mfa.gov.cn/eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/202302/t20230203_11019484.html

enter image description here

U.S. tracked China spy balloon from launch on Hainan Island along unusual path

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2023/02/14/china-spy-balloon-path-tracking-weather/

https://straightarrownews.com/cc/us-admits-it-tracked-chinese-spy-balloon-from-launch/

US admits it tracked Chinese spy balloon from launch

Published: February 15, 2023, 2:49 pm

Updated: February 15th

This week, the Pentagon revealed it was tracking the suspected Chinese spy balloon from its launch site along China’s south coast, and was monitoring it days before it crossed into U.S. airspace near Alaska.

Several U.S. officials said Tuesday the government is now looking at the possibility the Chinese were trying to spy on U.S. military facilities in the Pacific, like Guam or Hawaii. But an errant cold front apparently caused the spy balloon to veer off course, and the Pentagon thinks the Chinese government took advantage of the opportunity to gather more intelligence about U.S. military installations.

... the U.S. said China decided to pilot the balloon into the airspace over the U.S. mainland. According to a report from the Washington Post, the balloon “was partly directed by air currents, and partly piloted remotely. With propellors and a rudder, [the balloon had] the capability to be maneuvered.”

In other news:

https://www.middlebury.edu/institute/news/news-student-and-staff-researchers-identify-chinese-balloon-launch-sites

enter image description here

https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/china-spy-balloon-satellite-images-military-base-1234679705/

follows reporting from The Washington Post late Tuesday that U.S. intelligence officials now think the People’s Liberation Army launched the infamous spy balloon from Hainan with the intent of spying on U.S. military bases in the Pacific.

Additional:

https://edition.cnn.com/2023/02/10/politics/us-balloon-tracking-method/index.html

Exclusive: US developed method to track China’s spy balloon fleet within last year, sources say

The Defense Intelligence Agency warned that the balloon was headed for the US on January 27, one day before it entered the country over Alaska

it appeared to stop transmitting once the US learned about it, limiting how much intelligence it was able to gather on behalf of Beijing

“High-resolution imagery from U-2 flybys revealed that the high-altitude balloon was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations.”

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