A drifting balloon comes across the sky. It has happened before — twice before the most recent incident on Sunday, in fact, each arrival triggering conspiracy theories and raising new questions about just what the heck is going on up in the stratosphere.
Because each of the unidentified flying objects reportedly was at an altitude that posed a threat to civilian air traffic, President Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered them shot down — one in water off the coast of northern Alaska, one in a remote area of the Yukon, and another near the US-Canada border in Lake Huron.
The aerial interlopers were detected days after a much larger Chinese spy balloon wafted across Canada and the United States. That balloon was traveling at a high enough altitude not to pose any threat to commercial aircraft, according to officials. It was shot down when it reached waters off the coast of South Carolina so that falling debris would not pose a hazard on land.
But, as of yet, there have been no official explanations for the three subsequent objects. The first was reportedly metallic looking; the second said to be cylindrical in appearance; the third described as octagonal.
We live in troubled, paranoid times. Although conspiracy theories are much harder to shoot down than the UFOs, the faster the Pentagon provides information about this armada of enigmatic airships, the better.
There’s a plausible explanation for the sudden timing of the reports, which came in the lead-up to America’s annual celebration of airborne spheroids at the Super Bowl. After the Chinese spy balloon incident, NORAD — the combined US-Canada air defense command that’s perhaps best known nowadays for tracking Santa Claus’s progress on Christmas Eve — began scrutinizing the skies more carefully, picking up on objects it might have missed before.
But that doesn’t explain what the objects are, what they’re doing here — or how long they’ve been here.
According to White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre, there is “no indication of aliens or other extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.”
Well, thank goodness for that.
If the objects are determined to have come instead from a foreign power like China or Russia, then national security and diplomatic considerations might influence how much information the government is willing to make public.
Nations — including the United States — spy on one another. That sometimes involves flying directly over a rival’s territory; the U-2 crisis in the Cold War was triggered by just such a US flight over the Soviet Union. The Biden administration won’t want to set any precedents that would affect our own spying programs. Beijing says — and Washington denies — that the United States has sent spy balloons over China; if that’s true, we presumably don’t want them shot down, either.
And, in a scenario in which a rival power sent the balloons, the Pentagon would be loath to reveal exactly what they’d learned from any recovered debris. Publicly identifying the balloonist could also raise pressure on the Biden administration to respond and raise uncomfortable questions for NORAD about how long objects that supposedly posed a threat to aviation went unnoticed.
But under these circumstances, when the government itself has raised questions about safety, there’s a need for the government to release enough information about the objects — what are they, how many others might be afloat — to reassure the public that they are safe flying.
Of course, aliens and communists aren’t the only two possible culprits here. The objects could, in fact, be errant weather balloons, and the Pentagon began dropping hints Tuesday that the objects might have been benign after all. As The New York Times reported, tens of thousands of civilian balloons are launched every year, though they are supposed to float at elevations far above civilian air traffic. Some are used for weather monitoring. Others have been used for stranger purposes, the Times reported, such as one that was used to lift a device playing Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” into the stratosphere (presumably to rendezvous with the Wizard of Oz). If the downed dirigibles were actually civilian craft, then whoever launched them should be held accountable for the safety risk they were said to have posed.
Despite efforts by President Biden’s political opponents to turn the UFO shootings into a scandal (Inflategate? Balloonghazi?), most Americans seem generally amused by the whole series of events. But if these aircraft were a serious enough aviation threat for the Pentagon to shoot $450,000 missiles at them, it’s legitimate to eventually expect an explanation too. The truth is out there — and even if it’s an irritant to foreign relations or simply an embarrassment for the military, the Pentagon should aim to share it.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.