Three airborne objects in North American airspace were shot from the sky by the American military in the span of three days over the weekend at President Joe Biden’s direction, an unprecedented series of events that is leading to fresh questions about what exactly is transpiring high in the skies above the US.
Biden on Monday ordered a new government-wide effort to determine what precisely is happening. And in four separate locations, from the frozen waters off Alaska to the Carolina coast, work was underway to collect and analyze debris from the shot-down objects.
But answers about what the objects were, where they were from and what they were doing remained elusive.
During a midday briefing at the White House, the only detail of certainty was that the objects did not originate from outer space.
“I just wanted to make sure we address this from the White House: I know there have been questions and concerns about this but there is no – again, no – indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent take-downs,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
The preemptive notice against alien activity spoke to the oddity of the moment, with American fighter jets firing high-powered missiles into unidentified objects flying above North America. According to US officials, two of the objects downed over the weekend were likely carrying payloads of uncertain description, but there was no indication they posed a threat to people on the ground.
As of Monday, the US was not actively tracking any additional objects, a top White House official said.
As Americans confronted the extraordinary series of headlines about those missions, Biden himself offered no explanation – or reassurance – to the public. White House officials said the uncertainty of the objects made a presidential address more difficult, and risked Biden speaking without all of the facts.
His Canadian counterpart, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, traveled to the Yukon on Monday on a preplanned visit and addressed the object shot down over the territory on Saturday.
“Obviously there is some sort of pattern in there, the fact we are seeing this in a significant degree over the past week is a cause for interest and close attention,” Trudeau said in response to a question from a reporter.
While in the Yukon, Trudeau met with Canadian Armed Forces involved in the search for debris, but said the recovery effort was being delayed by wintry weather.
In the United States, officials sought to explain what they did know about the three objects shot down since Friday and what more they were seeking to learn.
Biden tapped national security adviser Jake Sullivan to lead “an interagency team to study the broader policy implications for detection, analysis, and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks,” National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said Monday.
The group – which includes Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines – is tasked with engaging “their relevant counterparts to share information and to try to gain their perspectives as well,” while the administration will brief members of Congress and local officials in the meantime, Kirby said.
Kirby said none of the three most recent objects shot down posed a threat to people on the ground, were not sending communications signals and showed no signs of “maneuvering or had any propulsion capabilities,” and were not manned.
But he did say the objects posed a potential threat to civilian aircraft, which led to Biden’s decision to shoot them down.
Details on the downed objects have emerged slowly as officials await recovery efforts from teams collecting debris on the ground. Two of the three recent objects shot from the sky were believed to have some sort of payload, according to US officials.
The preliminary descriptions of the objects’ appearances underscore the difficulty for administration officials in identifying their purpose or origin. Officials have been at a loss to say what the objects could be, and the initial descriptions have not lent any more clarity.
The object that was downed about 10 miles off the coast of northern Alaska on Friday was described as a metallic object that broke into several pieces when it hit the sea ice, according to multiple US officials. The break up into identifiable pieces suggests it may have had some sort of structure to it, but it is unlikely there will be any further clarity until the object is recovered. The object was traveling at an altitude of 40,000 feet.
Multiple officials said both the Alaska and Yukon objects were believed to have had payloads. Two officials said none of the three objects were believed to have had propulsion, though the wreckage still needs to be examined to be sure. The objects shot down over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron had different appearances, according to two US officials, though one of the officials said they were approximately the same size.
The second object shot down over the Yukon territory appeared to be a balloon with a metal payload hanging underneath, according to the officials. The object was also traveling at 40,000 feet, Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand said on Saturday. She went on to describe it as a “cylindrical object” smaller than the Chinese surveillance balloon that was downed off the coast of South Carolina.
CNN reported on Sunday that the most recent object shot down over Lake Huron was “octagonal” in shape with strings hanging off and no discernible payload, according to a senior administration official. It was traveling at 20,000 feet when it was shot down, the Pentagon said.
The first missile launched by an F-16 fighter at the object did not hit the target, three people briefed on the matter told CNN. Fox News first reported the initial missile missed.
The pilots had opted to use short-range AIM-9X Sidewinders, which are capable of seeing the heat contrast between an object and the surrounding area. But even so, the first missile failed to hit its target. It is not clear what happened to the missile.
CNN has reached out to the Pentagon for comment
Officials have taken pains to distinguish between the three objects shot down over the last three days and the Chinese balloon shot down over the Atlantic Ocean. The three later objects were all smaller in size and flying at a much lower altitude.
As of Sunday night, there was no indication from the White House that Biden planned to address the nation about the developments – silence that has begun to worry even allies of the president, according to multiple sources.
One person familiar with the administration’s deliberations said that as of the weekend, US officials were simply still trying to gain an understanding of what exactly those objects are, including their country or countries of origin, and whether they pose a serious concern. There would be considerable risk to Biden, this person noted, if he stepped in front of the cameras to deliver a speech before he and his top officials had a better grasp of what to make of the objects that were shot down.
Still, the pressure is mounting from some for the president to do just that.
One Democratic congressman, speaking on background to offer a frank assessment, told CNN Sunday night that the silence from Biden was “odd” – particularly given that “people are freaked out.” The lawmaker noted that the American public had notably heard more from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer over the weekend than the president himself.
Schumer told ABC News that – based on a briefing he received by White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan – the object shot down over Canada was likely another balloon, as was the high-altitude object downed over Alaska on Friday.
One lawmaker who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee told CNN on Monday morning that they had not received any communication from the administration over the weekend about the objects and that they did not expect to get much information until the fallen debris was recovered and assessed.
But the lawmaker said they believe that Biden needs to address the public with what he does know so far about the downed objects – even if that isn’t much.
“Ambiguity is fuel for conspiracy theorists, and I hope information is shared expeditiously,” the lawmaker said. “Something truthful is more important than something reassuring. Trust in government requires communication from government.”
The last time Biden directly addressed any of the recently shot down objects was on Friday, when he answered a question from CNN about the operation to shoot down a high-altitude object over Alaska, saying, “It was a success.”
Biden’s aides believe delivering remarks about the objects without a complete picture of what they are could cause further concern, another person familiar with the matter said. Biden has been deeply engaged behind the scenes, personally ordering each of the objects be shot down.
But his team has cautioned against a public address until at least some preliminary information is learned about the objects.
The president’s public schedule on Monday is empty, and he was expected to receive regular updates on what officials are learning about the objects as they analyze debris gathered after the shoot-downs.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Oren Liebermann, Phil Mattingly, Natasha Bertrand, Haley Britzky and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.