The Pentagon on Wednesday released the closest look yet at the suspect Chinese surveillance balloon that flew over Canada and the United States earlier this month: a photo taken from the cockpit of a US military aircraft.

The photo was taken by the pilot of a U-2 reconnaissance plane on February 3, looking down at the balloon as it hovered over the central United States. The balloon’s payload, believed to be surveillance equipment, is clearly visible.

The balloon was shot down by a US fighter jet over the coast of South Carolina the day after the photo was taken.

A U.S. Air Force pilot looks down on the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovers over the central continental United States on February 3, 2023. Recovery efforts began shortly after the balloon was brought down.

(Photo courtesy of Department of Defense)

The Pentagon confirmed the photo’s authenticity and released it to the media after CNN first reported it.

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NORAD, the continental air defense network, began tracking the balloon as it approached US airspace in late January, the Pentagon said earlier this month. It passed north of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on January 28 and moved largely over land over Alaska and then into Canadian airspace.

Canadian defense officials told MPs last week that the surveillance balloon illegally entered Canadian airspace between January 30 and 31, crossing through the Yukon and central British Columbia before re-entering the US over northern Idaho.

It then continued across Montana, Kansas and other central states before reaching the Carolina coast on February 4.

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The incident prompted NORAD to carefully scan North American airspace for signs of other alien airborne objects. It prompted the military jet to shoot down three more unidentified objects: one over Alaska on February 10, another over the Yukon on February 11, and a third over Lake Huron on February 12.

US intelligence agencies believe the three objects did not come from China or be tied to any other foreign surveillance operation, and are most likely “benign” private commercial or research balloons. Search efforts for all three objects have been suspended due to severe weather conditions.

The Pentagon says teams have recovered significant debris from the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, including sensors and other reconnaissance equipment. That debris is being analyzed to determine what, if any, information was obtained as if it were flying over North America.

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Speaking in Vancouver on Wednesday, Defense Minister Anita Anand said Canada continues to work “to ensure that we extract any data that may be relevant.”

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She did not say whether the search for the Yukon object will be resumed at any point or speculate on what it might be, but defended the decision to shoot it down.

“Rest assured, our priority from a defense standpoint is the protection of Canada and the Canadian people, and as the shooting down of the suspect balloon over central Yukon exemplified, that will always be our first priority,” she said.

“We will leave no stone unturned to ensure the protection of our country.”

Anand spoke after the Department of National Defense and the Canadian Armed Forces on Wednesday confirmed that they are aware of recent efforts by China to conduct surveillance operations in Canadian airspace and waters.

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Spokesperson Daniel Le Bouthillier said in a statement that the armed forces have been tracking and stopping attempts to monitor Canadian territory since 2022 under Operation LIMPID. He declined to provide additional information “to ensure the integrity of the business.”

It came after Globe and Mail reported that the Canadian military had discovered Chinese monitoring buoys in the Arctic.

Anand confirmed that her department “is aware of the buoys” and that they have been recovered from Arctic waters.

“We are also aware that this type of activity is not new and will continue to do what is necessary to protect our Canadian people, as well as the work that our allies are doing,” she said.

She later pointed to efforts to modernize NORAD, in which Canada is investing $40 billion, and affirmed that maintaining and strengthening Arctic sovereignty is a top priority.

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— with files from Aaron D’Andrea and the Canadian Press

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