How one white balloon escalated tensions between two superpowers

A balloon from China loaded with surveillance equipment floated over the U.S. for a week, before being shot down over the Atlantic Ocean

Today's expression: Blown off course
Explore more: Lesson #552
March 6, 2023:

A white balloon floating high above American airspace originated in China. The two sides don't agree on much more than that. The Americans say it was loaded with surveillance equipment and was used to spy on sensitive military sites. China says it was used for weather research and was blown off course. The U.S. shot it down over the Atlantic Ocean, and the two sides are barely speaking. Plus, learn the English phrase "blown off course."

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Billings is the largest city in the American state of Montana. Its population is under 200,000—the size of a typical Dallas suburb. And early last month, the people of Billings looked up in the sky and saw something really strange.

It was a white blob, just floating in the air. But not at a normal altitude. This was high, high up there. So a photographer from the Billings Gazette, the local newspaper, started taking photographs. And pretty soon, those photographs from Billings were reproduced in newspapers and on web sites around the world.

The photos turned famous because the white blob in the sky over Billings was a balloon from China carrying surveillance equipment.

Lesson summary

This is Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer. And JR has uploaded the full lesson content to PlainEnglish.com/552.

Coming up today: the controversy over the Chinese balloon—or, balloons, as the world is coming to discover. In the second half of the lesson, I’ll show you how to use the phrase “blown off course.” And we have a quote of the week. Let’s get going.

Controversy as Chinese balloon floats through American airspace

For an entire week, a large white balloon floated through American airspace. It was first spotted in Montana, a vast and thinly-populated state in the American west. It drifted eastward, through the Great Plains, across the Appalachian Mountains, until it reached the Atlantic Ocean. Then, it was shot down by the U.S. Air Force.

The balloon originated in China and was carrying surveillance equipment that weighed about as much as three buses. Oh, and here’s one more detail: the balloon’s flight path took it over sensitive military sites.

The story dominated American media and politics for weeks. The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, canceled a diplomatic trip to China in protest. China, for its part, said that the balloon was used for weather research and had been blown off course . The Chinese government strongly objected to the Americans shooting it down, and then, for good measure , accused the Americans of using balloons to spy on China.

Few things unite both political parties in America like suspicion of China. So as the balloon floated through the sky, the American political outrage machine switched into high gear. Both Democrats and Republicans competed to demonstrate their toughness on China. Republicans said Joe Biden, a Democrat, should have ordered the balloon shot down immediately. Biden countered that by shooting it down over the ocean, the military would be better able to recover and analyze the debris.

Then, the U.S. government revealed that Chinese balloons had passed through U.S. airspace at least four other times in the past—but that the U.S. Air Force had not detected them at the time. The military described it as a “domain awareness gap”—a technical term meaning, they didn’t even know they needed to be looking for these things.

That same week, a balloon of Chinese origin floated over Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Colombia. The Colombian government released a statement saying the balloon posed no threat, so they let it float out of the country.

China issued a formal apology through its embassy in Costa Rica; the Costa Rican president said the issue “generated stress in geopolitical relations.” Japan’s defense ministry said that Chinese balloons have been over its airspace, too.

Meanwhile , most people reading about this were perplexed. This is a balloon?

Yes. There has long been a dead zone up in the sky. Planes dominate the airspace up to about 25 kilometers above the earth’s surface. A typical commercial plane flies at 30,000 feet, or about nine kilometers, for example, while fighter planes go higher.

Low-earth orbit satellites have altitudes starting at about 6,000 kilometers above sea level—and the farthest ones are much farther than that.

The dead zone has always been the area higher than planes fly, but lower than satellites orbit the earth. Let’s call that area, “high-altitude.” A balloon can easily reach high-altitude; weather balloons go up multiple times per day to collect information from the Earth’s atmosphere.

But balloons don’t have propulsion and they don’t steer. So releasing a balloon into the sky has always been a bit of a crapshoot: the balloon goes where the wind wants to take it.

That has limited a balloon’s usefulness in the past. But now, advances in balloon technology are opening up more of that high-altitude zone to human exploration. And one of the ways that humans like to explore is to spy on other countries.

A balloon can be useful in espionage in a few ways. Satellites can take lots of great photographs from the sky. But anyone who has used the satellite view on Google Maps can tell you: satellite photos are grainy when you try to zoom in. Photos taken from a balloon can capture much higher-fidelity images than photos taken from satellites.

A balloon can also carry other types of surveillance equipment, including microphones and infrared heat detectors. The other advantage is that balloons are cheaper and easier to launch.

Countries are now scrambling to figure out what to do about high-altitude balloons. The chief of staff of France’s air force asked, “Do we really want a balloon…sitting above Paris and watching our every move?”

International treaties give countries sovereignty over their own airspace, the air above their geographic area. And international treaties also say that the Earth’s orbit, where satellites are, is not the sovereign territory of any country. But there is no broad agreement on what to do about the high-altitude area, above where planes fly but below where satellites orbit.

Balloons of this type are not only used for spying; there are a lot of other uses which are, honestly, more interesting than spying. So on a future lesson, we’ll explore how these balloons work, how big they are, how they move around, and what they can be used for.

The balloon will not be returned

I don’t think anyone believes this balloon was used for weather research. Most people also don’t believe it was blown off-course; they point to the fact that this floated over sensitive military sites as proof that it was spying on the mainland. I’m not so sure. From what I could read, it’s possible to control a balloon’s flight path on shorter flights, but a longer flight is harder to control. And this balloon came all the way from China. We’ll have to see.

I did laugh at China’s indignation that the balloon was shot down. I guess they wanted it back? I don’t know. I have a feeling that if you or I floated a balloon with cameras over a Chinese military base…we would not be getting that balloon back!

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Expression: Blown off course