Inside the Hunt for U.F.O.s at the End of the World

DEADHORSE, Alaska — Really? That’s it?

The United States military is capable of many things, but finding the remnants of an unidentified flying object scattered across a blinding expanse of Arctic ice in minus-30-degree weather using six available hours of daylight is not one of them.

The search for a downed U.F.O. began and ended near this oil-camp town at the frozen edge of the world, where Navy pilots flying P-8 Poseidons finally gave up on Friday, ending their mission with no answers.

Hours later and some 500 miles away, Canadian forces searching for the shreds of a second object in the Yukon Territory retreated empty-handed. The same thing happened on Lake Huron, where Coast Guard captains docked their boats without finding whatever it was that F-22 fighter pilots shot out of the sky with a $400,000 Sidewinder missile. (The pilots actually shot two missiles; the first one missed.)

The three objects were intercepted in quick succession on Feb. 10, 11 and 12, just days after the United States shot down a giant Chinese spy balloon on Feb. 4. But as quickly as the national craziness over aerial phenomena began, the military packed up and went home, leaving the answers encased in Arctic ice and under the whitecaps of Lake Huron.

In Deadhorse — permanent population: 25 — life had already moved on by Saturday morning. Oil workers left for their shifts while it was still dark, and they would be back in the evening for early dinners and early bedtimes. Nancy Bremer, a receptionist at the Aurora Hotel — home to the only restaurant in town, a buffet-style assembly line that serves ahi tuna steaks and cheeseburgers — said people here were focused on work, and not concerned with any looming threat of an object shot down over ice.

“If we find it,” she asked, “should I call you?”

The good people of Deadhorse notwithstanding, many of us still had a lot of questions. For a nation that has been riveted by this saga since the aerial assaults on mysterious objects began — Pop! Pop! Pop! — the end felt incomplete.

Were aliens involved? (No, says the White House.) Surveillance devices of mysterious provenance? (No, says the White House.) Hobby balloons? (We may never know, says the White House.)

But of course, this is America. When was the last time we let anything go?

Perhaps some answers are in Illinois, where, according to two people familiar with the investigation, F.B.I. agents have interviewed a team of hobby aviation enthusiasts who said their balloon had gone missing somewhere over the southwest coast of Alaska last Saturday, during its seventh trip around the Earth.

No one from the government or the hobby club has confirmed that any of the objects shot down were the group’s weather-chasing pico balloon, but the club has taken down its website after an onslaught of inquiries.

The Biden administration is leaving it up to the public to piece together an answer. President Biden, apparently seeking to ease a diplomatic rift with the Chinese, told the public on Thursday that the three unidentified objects were probably not surveillance devices.

What We Know About the Objects Shot Down Over the U.S. and Canada

An aerial mystery. The U.S. military shot down three unidentified flying objects over North America over a three-day stretch in February. The incidents came a week after a Chinese spy balloon that had invaded American airspace was downed on Feb. 4. Here is what we know about the objects:

What happened? The U.S. military intercepted an unidentified flying object on Feb. 10 over the Arctic Ocean near Alaska, another on Feb. 11 over the Yukon Territory and a third over Lake Huron in Michigan on Feb. 12. American and Canadian officials are still trying to identify the objects.

Why were these objects shot down faster than the balloon was? The Chinese spy balloon, which traversed the United States for days before it was taken down, was flying at 60,000 feet and didn’t pose a danger to aircraft. U.S. officials said that the three objects posed a “very real” threat to civilian aircraft but were not sending out communications signals.

How are the objects different from the spy balloon? U.S. officials said that the objects over Alaska and the Yukon were smaller than the spy balloon. They also said that the Yukon object was cylindrical, while the Michigan object had an octagonal structure with strings hanging off. Here is how they compare to other high-altitude objects.

What have investigators found? The United States has called off the search for the objects downed over Alaska and Lake Huron, and President Biden said they were likely research balloons, not surveillance craft. The Canadian search for the object over the Yukon was still continuing, a U.S. official said.

“The intelligence community’s current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research,” Mr. Biden said. He also said he had no regrets about shooting down the first one. (On Saturday, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, called the American reaction “absurd and hysterical.”)

Sam Lyman, a pilot who commutes to Deadhorse from Albuquerque, said the government’s explanation for shooting down the flying objects — that they were traveling at an altitude that made them a potential threat to civilian aircraft — made sense to him.

The object floating over Alaska was traveling at around 40,000 feet when it was shot down.

During 30 years of flying, Mr. Lyman, 47, said he had seen countless weather and party balloons — a graveyard of HAPPY BIRTHDAYs and GET WELL SOONs in the sky — and said that a large weather balloon could conceivably get in the way of an aircraft, causing “disastrous” results, like collapsing over the front of an airplane.

If, in fact, it really was a balloon — which the White House says it cannot confirm.

“The only information we have is what they put on the internet,” Mr. Lyman said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

So here are a few facts, according to a senior U.S. military official who was not authorized to speak publicly:

NORAD, the air defense organization perhaps best known for its Christmas Eve Santa-tracking website, scans the skies each day, looking for serious threats. All three objects, which were about the size of Volkswagen Beetles, were picked up after NORAD adjusted its systems in the wake of the spy balloon to pick up a wider range of objects at different speeds and altitudes.

Pilots who shot down the object over the Arctic said that it was metallic and broke into pieces — whether those were soft or hard pieces is unknown. The pilots lost sight of the material as it fell through the clouds.

Whatever those three objects were, they were much smaller than the Chinese spy balloon, which was gathered from a square-mile debris field off the coast of South Carolina, and contained thousands of pounds of material.

Military officials said letting the Chinese spy balloon float across the country and out to sea gave them time to assess it for counterintelligence purposes.

But Alaskan lawmakers, who believe their last-frontier state has become the first line of defense against a number of threats to national security — including floating ones — have criticized the Biden administration for not shooting down the Chinese balloon sooner.

At what point do we say, a surveillance balloon, a spy balloon coming from China is a threat to our sovereignty?” Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said during a Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Feb. 9. “It should be the minute — the minute it crosses the line — and that line is Alaska.”

The next day, a Sidewinder took out a U.F.O. over Deadhorse.

To help find the object, Alaska National Guard soldiers have flown Chinooks and Black Hawks over frigid islands, landing and walking onto the ice to search places that looked promising. But the conditions were extreme.

“Iraq was a punishing environment,” said Col. Elizabeth Mathias, the public affairs director for NORAD and U.S. Northern Command. “But it wasn’t the Arctic.”

Locals agreed: “It’s like 100 haystacks and finding one needle,” Mr. Lyman said.

In a masterful attempt at looking on the bright side, John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, addressed the absurdity of the situation, in which fighter pilots may well have used air-to-air missiles to shoot down a hobby balloon, by telling reporters this was a “better outcome” than a more sinister alternative.

“If it turns out that they were, in fact, civilian or recreational use or weather balloon and therefore benign — which is what the intelligence community thinks — isn’t that a better outcome than to have to think about the possibility of greater threats to our national security?” Mr. Kirby asked reporters on Friday.

Mr. Kirby added that the president had asked for a “new set of rules” for the government to assess floating objects, “so that we can now deal with these in perhaps a different way in the future.”

Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, said in an interview that he’s not so sure the U.F.O.s were innocuous.

“There’s no briefing that I’ve been in, or that I’ve received, that supports what John Kirby is out there saying,” Mr. Sullivan said. “It should be the default position when you don’t know what the answer is on the smaller objects, is to initially assume the worst until you have the right answer.”

Other experts say that this episode is proof that there should be a more formalized effort to identify what, exactly, is going on in the sky.

Hobbyists can cheaply launch weather-tracking balloons. The National Weather Service sends over 180 balloons into the sky every day. (None of theirs are missing, according to a spokeswoman.) China sends over spy balloons, including at least three during the Trump administration that went unreported. (One of those is definitely gone.) And then other phenomena go unexplained.

Robert Powell, a board member of the Scientific Coalition for U.A.P. Studies — the abbreviation that has replaced U.F.O. and means “unidentified aerial phenomena” — has been pushing for Congress to fund formalized research of the craft. In January, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report that documented 366 recent unidentified sightings, many of which were drones, birds or trash.

People like Mr. Powell are focused on getting answers about the many sightings that do not have an explanation. He does not consider the three downed objects to be in that category. In this case, he said, the government had released just enough information without offering a fulsome explanation.

Even though he is a stickler for answers, he can see why.

“If it turns out that the second, third and fourth object were a hobbyist balloon or some university’s research balloon or what have you,” Mr. Powell said, “It would not look good that we shot those down with a half-million-dollar missile.”

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