US pilot captured in a selfie photograph flying over a Chinese "spy balloon."

A US fighter pilot is visible in the image passing the Chinese balloon

An image captured by a fighter pilot as he flew over the Chinese balloon that was shot down earlier this month has been made public by the US Department of Defense.

Military officials watched the high-altitude balloon's progress over the US mainland while taking the selfie from the cockpit of a U-2 spy plane.

According to Beijing, the balloon was a weather ship that got blown off course.

However, according to Washington, the balloon was a component of a vast Chinese intelligence gathering program.

At least two planes monitored the balloon's characteristics and flight path as it passed over US territory.

Fly-bys showed it "was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations," a senior State Department official claimed earlier this month.

When the balloon entered Alaskan airspace on January 28, authorities first became aware of it.

The foreign object was located by fighter jets from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a joint operation between the US and Canada, but the military did not shoot it down at the time.

According to officials, the balloon's size and potential debris field posed a threat to people on the ground, so they were unable to shoot it down over land.

Earlier this month, a defense official told US lawmakers that the balloon had "a payload the size of a jetliner" and was as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

On February 4, the day before the plane was shot down off the coast of South Carolina, the picture that was made public on Wednesday was taken. Inside the Pentagon, it has reportedly "gained legendary status.".

At 60,000 feet (18,200 meters), the balloon was said to be hovering. According to the Air Force, U-2 spy planes frequently soar above 70,000 feet.

The single-seater reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, known as the Dragon Lady, were previously operated by the CIA. Pilots are required to put on full pressure suits, much like what astronauts do.

The balloon's scattered remains in the Atlantic Ocean were being recovered until last Friday.

According to Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon's deputy press secretary, parts of the debris, including its payload, have been found and are being examined.

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