(CNN) — Recovery operations have concluded for the suspected Chinese spy balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month, the US military said in a statement Friday.
The recovery effort ended after “U.S. Navy assets assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully located and retrieved debris” from the balloon, the statement from US Northern Command said.
“Final pieces of debris are being transferred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory in Virginia for counterintelligence exploitation, as has occurred with the previous surface and subsurface debris recovered. U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard vessels have departed the area. Air and maritime safety perimeters have been lifted,” the statement added.
US officials have said that the balloon had a payload — or the equipment it was carrying — the size of roughly three buses and was capable of collecting signals intelligence and taking photos. The balloon traveled over sensitive sites in Montana, officials have said, but the administration has said it tracked the balloon’s path and worked to minimize its intelligence collection capabilities.
The US has said that the balloon is part of a large fleet controlled by the Chinese military that has conducted surveillance over at least 40 countries across five continents in recent years.
CNN reported this week that the US intelligence community is examining the possibility that the balloon, which lifted off from Hainan, China, in January, did not intend to travel over the continental US but was blown off its path by strong winds. The balloon’s original surveillance target was likely Guam, but the weather may have shifted the balloon northward, officials said.
President Joe Biden said Thursday that he expects to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the balloon but that he will not apologize for shooting it down.
“I hope we are going to get to the bottom of this, but I make no apologies for taking down that balloon,” he said.
After the Chinese balloon was shot down, the US military downed three subsequent objects that were much smaller and are now believed to have not been tied to any country’s surveillance program, Biden said. Instead, they were likely used for weather or research purposes by private entities.
The US will be crafting parameters moving forward on how to handle unidentified objects in US airspace that could pose a risk to civilian aircraft, Biden said.
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