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'High-altitude object' shot down by military over Alaska

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This afternoon a U.S. fighter pilot shot down what the White House is calling a high-altitude object. It was about 40,000 feet over the northeastern part of Alaska. What it was exactly is not yet known. But if these vague reports have you wondering about whether this could be another spy balloon released by China, well, you're not alone. NPR political reporter Deepa Shivaram joins us now from the White House. Hey, Deepa.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Deepa, what does the White House know about this object?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, this all happened pretty quickly. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby just briefed reporters at the White House this afternoon and said that a, quote, "high-altitude object" was discovered over airspace in Alaska in the last 24 hours. It was found at about 40,000 feet. And Kirby said it posed a reasonable threat to safety of civilian flights. Last evening a U.S. fighter aircraft went up and around the object, and the pilot's assessment was that it wasn't manned. And then this morning, at the recommendation of the Pentagon, President Biden ordered the military to shoot down this object. That happened at about 1:45 p.m. Eastern Time today - so basically right before Kirby came out to brief reporters at the White House. The object landed in frozen waters off the coast of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean. And Kirby actually said it might be easier to recover the debris because it landed on ice. And the president just now briefly commented on the object getting shot down. And he said it was a success.

SUMMERS: OK, Deepa, so is this another Chinese spy balloon?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, at this time, the White House isn't calling it that. An official from the Pentagon also said he didn't want to characterize it at this time. But we do know that this object has some differences from that Chinese spy balloon that was shot down last week. So, first of all, the size is different. Kirby said today that the object found was roughly the size of a car, compared to the Chinese spy balloon, which was described to be about the size of two to three buses. And that spy balloon was also flying at a higher altitude compared to this object. And this object shot down today also appeared to have no steering capabilities, whereas the Chinese spy balloon did. It could maneuver itself on its own. But Kirby said that the object shot down today was, quote, "at the whim of the wind." And this part is important. At the time, the White House doesn't know if the object is state-owned or private. But Kirby did have a message for whoever does own the object.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: We're going to remain vigilant about our airspace. We're going to remain vigilant about the skies over the United States. And as I said earlier, the president takes his obligations to protect our national security interest and the safety and security of the American people as paramount. He's always going to decide and act in a way that is commensurate with that duty.

SUMMERS: So, Deepa, if they weren't sure what this object is or who owns this object, why did President Biden order it to be shot down?

SHIVARAM: Right. So the big questions are, you know, whose object is this? Did it pose any kind of threat? And right now, Juana, we don't have the answers to those questions. Officials say they haven't ruled anything in or out on the purpose of this object. But they emphasized that there was a threat to civilian flights, which is why they acted so quickly to shoot this down. The White House said that because this object wasn't able to steer itself, it could have been blown into a flight path at any point. So acting fast was imperative in this case. And officials made it clear they're not tracking any other objects at this time. And what they're doing now is going to try to recover the debris from this object that's now sitting on the frozen waters and see what they can learn about it.

SUMMERS: All right. NPR's Deepa Shivaram, come back and update us soon. Thank you.

SHIVARAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NENA SONG, "99 LUFTBALLONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.