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The Pentagon is tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over the "continental United States," the U.S. Department of Defense said Thursday.
"The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now," Pentagon Press Secretary General Pat Ryder told reporters in a briefing.
A senior defense official who also participated in the briefing said the U.S. government had "very high confidence" that the object belonged to China, but added it does not currently pose a "threat" and is "well above commercial air traffic," as stated in a release on the Defense Department's website.
The balloon was most recently seen above the city of Billings in Montana, officials said, according to BBC News. Before this, it was spotted flying over Alaska's Aleutian Islands and through Canada.
CHASE DOAK/AFP via Getty Images Suspected Chinese spy balloon in the sky over Billings, Montana
The defense official also confirmed Thursday that the U.S. government had decided against shooting the balloon down for fear that debris might cause damage to underlying communities.
"We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area," the official said when asked about the size of the object during the briefing. "I can't really go into the dimension — but there have been reports of pilots seeing this thing, even though it's pretty high up in the sky. So ... it's sizable."
Meanwhile, a separate senior official said the balloon is "the size of three buses," per ABC News.
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STAFF/AFP via Getty The Pentagon
The official added during the briefing that this is not the first time a spy balloon has been spotted flying above the U.S., but this particular one had been hanging around for longer.
"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, [and is] more persistent than in previous instances. That would be one distinguishing factor."
The Pentagon has made contact with Chinese officials about the balloon's presence, the briefing confirmed.
"We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue," the official said. "We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland."
In response to the loitering balloon, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has indefinitely postponed his trip to China, which was scheduled for Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The U.S. government is currently following the recommendations of General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command.