A large balloon drifts above the Atlantic Ocean, just off...

A large balloon drifts above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet below it, Feb. 4. Credit: AP/Chad Fish

Few of us can resist a good mystery.

That explains some of the interest in the Chinese spy balloon, and the other three aerial objects shot down this month by the U.S. military.

And why not?

True, the objects were a fount of jokes, a source of faux outrage over a supposed insufficiently macho presidential reaction, and a still-reverberating litmus test by which to gauge U.S.-China relations.

But primarily, the allure was in the mystery. And when you combine mystery with the heavens, you get "UFO" trending once again in search engines.

That especially was the case with those other three things — which, to be fair, were unidentified, and flying, and objects.

But can we be serious for a moment? As much as I believe there is intelligent life out there somewhere — hopefully, more intelligent than we are — these objects hardly were evidence of it. If some distant alien civilization is technologically advanced enough to reach our realm (if it hasn't already), it's not going to be with a craft that floats along clumsily and lets itself get shot down by something as rudimentary as a human-made missile. Such an alien vessel surely would possess incredible speed and maneuvering ability and would have some sort of ray gun that could vaporize the missile or a deflector shield that could turn the missile back on the fighter that launched it.

Amid the conjecturing, word emerged last week that a small Midwest hobby club called the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade (homage to the movie "Up") had reported as "missing in action" a 3-foot balloon it launched in October. Its last known time and location put it in the vicinity of the object shot down over Canada's Yukon Territory on Feb. 11. It turns out that launching balloons into the upper atmosphere is a fairly common activity among hobbyists and school classes. Seems that at least one part of this mystery might have a charming resolution — though a pin prick could have accomplished the same thing as the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, which goes for $439,000, according to Bloomberg News

The rapid-fire appearance of the three additional objects constituted its own mystery. Was it just those three and just now? Or have there been others that we somehow missed?

Well … 

In another case of "it turns out," U.S. military authorities decided after the Chinese balloon was discovered to readjust the filters of their surveillance apparatus — basically, the radar that scans the skies. NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) broadened the filters so that slow-moving objects flying above certain altitudes could be spotted more easily. Set the filters too broadly and the computers attached to the radar would be overwhelmed with information they would not be able to sort. Set the filters too tight and you miss objects that are there.

As balloonapalooza was at its height, a different kind of aerial object was located. An asteroid called Sar2667 was spotted by a Hungarian astronomer doing a routine scan for near-Earth objects a few hours before it broke apart in our atmosphere Monday in a spectacular fireball. Like the Yukon object, it was about 3 feet wide, and astronomers quickly — and accurately — calculated it would enter the atmosphere over northern France around 4 a.m. local time.

There is in all of this a parable about vision. We, too, only see what we are looking for, where we are looking for it. Set the filters in our brains too wide, and we're overwhelmed by stimulus and miss the details. Focus too tightly, and we miss stuff we really ought to see. Get it right, and we can see things — and people — as they really are.

Why we don't always do that is another of life's mysteries.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.

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