New photo shows U.S. spy plane pilot’s selfie with Chinese balloon

The Department of Defense has released a new photo showing an Air Force pilot flying above the suspected Chinese spy balloon that was shot down over United States territory earlier this month.

In the photo, dated Feb. 3, the pilot can be seen looking down at the surveillance balloon from the cockpit of a U-2 spy plane as the object hovers over the Central Continental U.S.

The defense department did not identify the pilot in the selfie. Its authenticity was confirmed during a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday.

Addressing reporters at the briefing, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh noted that search operations to recover sensors and other debris from the balloon, which was shot down by a missile on Feb. 4 off the coast of South Carolina, had concluded last week.

Singh said that “the majority of the balloon, including the payload, was recovered.” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said at a recent news briefing that the recovered material was now at the FBI laboratory in Quantico. “It’s quite a bit — it’s a significant amount — including the payload structure, as well as some of the electronics and the optics,” he said.

China says the balloon was an unmanned civilian airship used for meteorological research that strayed off course, and that shooting it down was an overreaction and a violation of international norms. Beijing has accused the Washington of escalating the dispute.

Officials said they had called off the search for debris from three other unidentified aerial objects that were shot down this month over hard-to-reach areas in Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron.

Kirby said earlier last week there was no indication those objects were related to China’s surveillance balloon program and that the U.S. intelligence community was considering whether they had “some commercial or benign purpose.”

NBC News first reported the existence of the suspected Chinese spy balloon on Feb. 2.

Jennifer Jett contributed.

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