A U-2 pilot flying high above the alleged Chinese spy balloon took a close-up photo of himself and the large white orb just a day before the US Air Force shot it down off the South Carolina coast.

The photo shows the top of the pilot's helmet inside the U-2 cockpit with the balloon flying below.

It was taken on 3 February as the balloon "hovered over the Central Continental United States", according to the caption provided by the defence department.

The Pentagon released the image yesterday, more than two weeks after the balloon made international headlines as it crossed the US.

The balloon was downed on 4 February by an F-22 fighter jet firing a AIM-9X Sidewinder missile.

The strike took place once the balloon was no longer over land but was still within US territorial waters.

The U-2 Dragon Lady is a high altitude US spy plane that has been in service since the 1950s.

The balloon has been recovered from the sea

The Pentagon announced last Friday that navy ships and submersibles had completed recovery of the massive balloon and its payload, which fell in pieces into the Atlantic Ocean.

The payload was recovered from the ocean floor and is being analysed by the FBI, Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said yesterday.

The shootdown led to three other smaller objects also being shot down by Air Force jets within a period of eight days: one over Alaska, one over Canada and one over Lake Huron.

Searches for the Alaska and Lake Huron objects have ended.