Updated Feb 23, 2023 at 4:53pm ET
It is undoubtedly the best selfie ever taken. A pilot aboard the Air Force’s legendary U-2 spy plane is observing China’s alleged spy balloon as it hovers somewhere above the United States.
The photo, taken Feb. 3 and released Wednesday by the Department of Defense, it said achieved legendary status inside the Pentagon.
But where, exactly, was it taken?
In a world with very few secrets, it’s actually possible to answer this question.
The U-2 balloon and spy plane were just south of the small town of Bellflower, Missouri, population 325, according to the US Census.
In an email to NPR, the Pentagon declined to confirm the location of the selfie, saying only that it was taken “over the central continental United States.”
So, if you’re curious, how do you locate an alleged spy balloon?
For starters, you can look up roughly where the balloon was on the date the military said the photo was taken, February 3. There have been several reports of the ball passing over the Midwest, moving from near Kansas City toward St. Louis.
Next, check out the landmarks in the photo. Far on the horizon there is a river that is clearly visible, along with some high altitude clouds. A quick review of publicly available satellite data revealed that there was a cloud front along the Mississippi River that day.
That makes the Mississippi River a good candidate, but where along the Mississippi? To figure this out, it helps to enhance the photo and look for distinctive landmarks. One obvious one, in the center of the picture, is a Y-shaped channel leading to the river. The channel appears next to a dam or bridge.
And indeed, by scrolling that stretch of river on google maps, it is possible to find the Y-shaped channel and Lock 24 on the Mississippi.
A little more work will give you a second spot on the map, a curve in a foreground highway, US 61.
Once you have two points, use Google Earth or other mapping software to draw a line through them. Then follow it, and sure enough, you can find the small town of Bellflower and the location of the spy balloon and plane pictured. It’s all a bit rough and doesn’t line up perfectly, but good enough.
There are other interesting curiosities that we can understand by looking at the photo. The service altitude of the Air Force U-2 spy plane is approximately 70,000 feet. Since the plane is looking down on the balloon, it seems possible that the balloon is flying about 60,000 feet in altitude, as claimed by the Pentagon.
And Chis Combs, a professor of aerodynamics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, points out that the spy plane’s shadow can also be used to get a better idea of the balloon’s size.
But of course there’s one question a selfie can’t answer:
What exactly was the balloon doing on its journey across the American heartland?