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A small, nonthreatening balloon was intercepted by a fighter jet over Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A small, nonthreatening balloon spotted flying high over the mountainous Western United States was intercepted by a fighter jet over Utah on Friday, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

NORAD fighter pilots sent in the morning to investigate the balloon determined it was “not maneuverable” and did not present a threat to national security, spokesperson John Cornelio said. The balloon was still in the air, under close observation.

NORAD, a joint military command tasked with defending the airspace over the U.S. and Canada, has not said where the balloon came from or why it was flying over Utah and Colorado.

There has been heightened interest in reports of balloon overflights after the military identified — and eventually shot down — a large, white Chinese spy balloon that crossed much of the country last year. But officials said the balloon intercepted Friday was not sent by a foreign adversary and posed no threat to aviation or U.S. security.

NORAD said it was continuing to coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration to track and monitor the balloon, which was detected at an altitude varying between 43,000 feet (13,100 meters) and 45,000 feet (13,700 meters), Cornelio said. NORAD declined to specify where in Utah pilots encountered it.

Early reports of the balloon sighting had raised concern among lawmakers including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, who said their offices were monitoring the situation. The office of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said it had been in touch with local military officials.

FILE - In this image provided by the Department of Defense, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, a U.S. Air Force U-2 pilot looks down at a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovers over the United States on Feb. 3, 2023. A small and nonthreatening balloon spotted flying high over the mountainous Western United States was intercepted by fighter jets over Utah, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command. (Department of Defense via AP, File)

FILE - In this image provided by the Department of Defense, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, a U.S. Air Force U-2 pilot looks down at a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovers over the United States on Feb. 3, 2023. A small and nonthreatening balloon spotted flying high over the mountainous Western United States was intercepted by fighter jets over Utah, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command. (Department of Defense via AP, File)

The Chinese balloon that was downed last year off the coast of South Carolina after a weeklong path over multiple military sites was part of a global surveillance program that Beijing has been conducting for “several years,” according to the Pentagon. It was outfitted with advanced technology designed to collect intelligence signals, the Biden administration said.

China denied that it was conducting military surveillance and said it was a civilian balloon that accidentally veered off course while collecting weather data. After it was shot down, Chinese officials said they reserved the right to “take further actions” and criticized the U.S. for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”

Similar spy balloons linked to the People’s Liberation Army — the military wing of China’s ruling Communist Party — have been detected floating over five continents. Just last month, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry detected four Chinese balloons, including three reportedly flying by a key air force base.

Schoenbaum is a government and politics reporter based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She also covers general news in the Rockies and LGBTQ+ rights policies in U.S. statehouses.