(NewsNation) — The Pentagon on Wednesday released a photo showing an Air Force pilot inside a U-2 spy plane as it flew over a suspected Chinese spy balloon earlier this month.
The photo, taken by the pilot, shows the shadow of the plane cast against the balloon somewhere over the “Central Continental United States” on Feb. 3. The Defense Department first acknowledged the existence of the spy balloon Feb. 2, when it was believed to be over Montana.
The photo is the clearest and closest look yet at the balloon and its payload, which appears to include solar panels and antennae.
Defense officials previously said the balloon could collect communications signals and was part of a widespread operation from the Chinese military to conduct spying on more than 40 countries across five continents.
It was shot down on Feb. 4 off the South Carolina coast and a recovery operation was launched immediately. China insisted the balloon was a civilian aircraft and called the shoot-down an “overreaction.”
The Pentagon’s deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said Wednesday the payload has been recovered.
The balloon entered U.S. airspace in Alaska and traversed the United States for more than a week before it was shot down. Officials said they opted not to shoot it down earlier because it was flying at an altitude of 60,000 feet, meaning it posed no immediate threat to commercial aircraft.
But Republicans criticized the Biden administration for not acting sooner.
CNN reported that intelligence officials did not flag the balloon as an urgent threat when it was first spotted off the coast of Alaska. Instead, sources told CNN, they saw it as an opportunity to surveil the balloon and collect intelligence.
The balloon wasn’t the only object shot down in North America this month. A “high-altitude object” was shot down off the northeastern coast of Alaska a week after the spy balloon, and Canada brought down an object a day later. Then, a third object was downed over Lake Huron.
The Pentagon has since said the other objects could have been being used for “benign” purposes.
First introduced in 1955, the U-2 is a single-engine, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft that flies at about 70,000 feet, according to the Air Force. Pilots must wear a pressure suit similar to those worn by astronauts.