Video shows moment US shot down suspected Chinese spy balloon after Americans reported sightings Saturday

Americans on Saturday reported seeing the large Chinese balloon suspected of conducting surveillance as it drifted over the Southern U.S. Hours later, it was shot out of the sky over the Atlantic Ocean.

TV footage showed the moment the balloon appeared to be hit and began its descent toward the water.

The balloon was downed after it passed into U.S. territorial waters, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement. It carried a large payload of spy gear according to U.S. officials, and had soared over several strategic sites, including nuclear missile silos as it crossed a huge swath of the U.S.

Earlier in the day, people had used cell phones and professional cameras to document the balloon's trajectory. The balloon was spotted over Montana earlier this week.

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Video shows Chinese balloon being shot down

Footage on TV and captured by onlookers appears to show aircraft over the Atlantic firing at the spy balloon. After a small explosion, debris could be seen slowly floating down toward the ocean.

U.S. military jets were seen flying in the vicinity and ships were deployed in the water to mount the recovery operation.

Senior Pentagon officials briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity said F-22 warplanes from Virginia and F-15s from Massachusetts were scrambled to down the balloon after it passed the coastline of South Carolina. A single AIM 9X sidewinder air-to-air missile was fired and struck the balloon at 2:39 p.m. EDT, officials said.

WATCH: US jets shoot down suspected Chinese spy balloon

The debris landed in about 47 feet of water, a relatively shallow site that a salvage ship and divers will investigate in the coming days. Debris could scatter over about a 7 mile radius. No people or vessels were struck.

What was the Chinese balloon doing?

The balloon was a "high-altitude surveillance balloon," Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said.

China has maintained it was a weather research "airship" that went off course, but that has been rejected by U.S. officials. It's not the first time China has tried to collect sensitive information, Ryder said.

“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years, Ryder said. “Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”

The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America.

Where did people see the balloon?

The balloon was spotted Saturday floating east over the Carolinas, headed toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Evan Fisher, an atmospheric sciences major at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, photographed what he said was a "surprisingly large" balloon just before 9 a.m. Saturday. He used a professional camera with a zoom lens to capture detail on the balloon.

"I'm used to weather balloons, I'm a meteorologist, so I'm familiar with 12- to 18-foot-wide balloons, but the fact that this thing is three school buses wide just just blew me away," Fisher told USA TODAY.

Amy Ostrosky, who works in digital marketing and lives in Cornelius, about 20 miles north of Charlotte, said she and several neighbors ran outside to spot what they thought was the balloon Saturday morning. It looked like a bright star in the sky, but bigger, she said.

Ostrosky said the whole ordeal made her uneasy: "What is it for? What’s it doing? Why is it here?"

Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, Josh Meyer and Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Video shows Chinese balloon shot down; Americans report sightings