The photograph was taken from the cockpit of a U-2 spy plane as it flew above the alleged surveillance balloon on February 3.
The United States Department of Defence has released a new photo depicting a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it travelled across North America earlier this month, igniting a political firestorm.
The photo was taken on February 3 from the cockpit of a U-2 single-engine spy plane deployed by the US Air Force. It shows a close-up of the balloon, which appears to be carrying large panels beneath its white, inflatable bulb.
According to the Department of Defence, the image was taken as the balloon “hovered over the Central Continental United States” a day before it was shot down off the South Carolina coast.
The aerial object and its destruction heightened ongoing tensions between the US and China, which insisted the aircraft was nothing more than a civilian weather balloon blown off course.
Republicans also denounced the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden for its slow response in shooting down the balloon.
Defence officials had said the balloon could not be shot down over US soil without risk to civilians on the ground. The giant white aircraft had been flying 18,300 metres (60,000 ft) above the ground and was estimated to be 60 metres (200 ft) tall.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Defense Department deputy spokesperson Sabrina Singh confirmed that the agency had completed its search operation for the remains of the balloon last week.
“The majority of the balloon, including the payload, was recovered,” Singh said.
Navy ships and submersibles had swept the Atlantic Ocean to recover fragments of the aircraft, which were then turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for analysis. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has promised to share information gathered from the balloon with the US Congress and international allies.
US officials had previously said that the aircraft was “clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons”.
They explained that Cold War-era U-2 planes sent to monitor the balloon had seen “solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors”.
The US ultimately deployed an F-22 fighter jet to bring down the balloon, using an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. In the days afterwards, the US also shot down three other unidentified aircraft, out of what Biden called “an abundance of caution”.
One was downed over Alaska, another over Canada and a third over Lake Huron. They were all reported to be smaller than the initial balloon.
Biden later explained the three unidentified aircraft were likely tied to research and private entities. “Nothing right now suggests they were related to China’s spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from any other country,” Biden said on February 16.
He also explained that more slow-moving flying objects were being detected as a result of enhanced radar surveillance in the wake of the alleged spy balloon.