Balloon sparks intrigue

February 14, 2023  - By

Feb. 4 saw the news networks alive with sometimes wild reports about UFOs, UAVs and then a balloon. Balloons are used for weather forecasting on a regular basis, launched daily into the stratosphere with payloads gathering wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, pressure and, of course, position.

Synchronized twice a day at about 900 locations around the world, balloons are released into the stratosphere gathering essential atmospheric data to feed our weather forecasts. Reaching altitudes of 20 miles, these balloons often drift on winds as far as 125 miles from the release point, broadcasting measurements from their onboard sensors.

At first, maybe North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) thought the balloon crossing into Alaska’s airspace was just one of these high-altitude weather prediction vehicles. Aircraft were apparently scrambled, and initially it was decided there was no threat, so the balloon was allowed to continue and enter Alaskan airspace. It was detected and subsequently tracked by both the United States and Canada for some time as it continued to drift on the jet stream over the border into the lower 48. Then, people in and around Billings Montana (home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base) started to send in reports of a very large balloon high overhead — according to one observer with a high-resolution camera, it even seemed to be stationary for 35 minutes.

Apparently, by the time the good folks in Montana were looking up, the Pentagon had decided the balloon was a Chinese surveillance vehicle. To get this detail, one or more U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft had been dispatched to investigate. The collected U-2 information spotted markings of a Chinese manufacturer on the 200-foot-tall balloon. A payload the size of a small passenger jet dangled some 20 feet below the balloon canopy. It had several antennas of various configurations. A huge solar panel was attached — presumably to power its suite of surveillance sensors.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered a ground stop for all aircraft traffic at the Billings airport while decisions were made about downing the balloon or allowing it to proceed.

Meanwhile, it may seem obvious that both the United States and China have developed, launched and make use of surveillance satellites. I imagined that a couple of dozen of these space vehicles would be buzzing over not only each other’s landmass, but also surveilling dozens of other countries as they orbit the whole planet.

What I found was a report that China had at least 260 such orbital observation platforms in 2022, and the United States has even more. Isn’t that enough without resorting to lower-tech balloons?

It’s possible that some electronic transmissions are short range and would not be detected by surveillance satellites operating in geosynchronous orbit (22,000 miles out), or even at 300 miles where the International Space Station (ISS) and most surveillance satellites hang out. So, a slow-moving balloon at 20 miles up might be ideal to “sniff” ground transmissions from sensitive military installations, and if you could control the balloon to hover, all the better to pick up radio signals. Could the gathering of transmission data somehow be used to geo-locate the source? It’s something the U.S. military may be working on, too, as it is reportedly also building a fleet of autonomous dirigibles and balloons.

According to press reports, the United States decided not to immediately take down the balloon, even though it subsequently discovered its surveillance capabilities. Not only was there concern over debris falling on populated areas but allowing the balloon to continue its flight over the United States provided an opportunity to observe its behavior and gather useful information. U.S. bases along its path apparently shut down all communications in sequence, as the balloon passed overhead.

The balloon was apparently found to be transmitting – presumably reporting on where it was and what it had detected. But, at some time transmissions ceased, possibly when U.S. Air Force activity was detected nearby.

The take-down off Myrtle Beach

An F-22 flew to almost the same altitude as the balloon and fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile into it, leaving the payload to tumble from 60,000 feet into the shallow (50-foot deep) Atlantic Ocean off Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Recovery boats were already on hand to pick up the collapsed canopy, and to begin locating the electronics payload on the seabed. At time of writing, the U.S. recovery effort has yet to inform us on finding the key electronic payload, which would go a long way to confirming the intended mission for the balloon.

Image: Screenshot of CNN news coverage

Image: Screenshot of CNN news coverage

Strange, but a couple of days later over Canada, F-22s were again in action to take down a “cylindrical object” detected at 40,000 feet — an altitude posing a danger to airline traffic. Little has been released on what this object might have been — could it possibly be a re-entering piece of space debris? Again, debris recovery and analysis is underway, and we patiently wait for a public report about what this was all about.

What have we learned?

Both China and the United States operate huge fleets of surveillance satellites gathering intelligence daily about each other’s capabilities and those of other countries. Both China and United States have also invested in surveillance balloons, but China is the only country to send one over U.S. territory.

There may have been earlier balloon incursions, which are only now being reported. The U.S. response was initially to determine the configuration of the balloon and its payload, then to allow its journey along the jet stream to continue. The United States has said the balloon did not uncover anything already available by other means, but recovery and analysis of the payload would presumably confirm this announcement.

China is not happy about the U.S. takedown of a harmless, stray weather balloon. And what the heck were F-22s shooting at in Canada?

We’ll tell you more when we learn more….

Tony Murfin

GNSS Aerospace

Editor’s Note: Since the initial instance of an unidentified object floating across U.S. airspace — later identified as a Chinese surveillance balloon — three additional unidentified aerial objects were spotted in North American airspace. One was spotted in Alaska, one in northern Canada and one over the Great Lakes region. All three were shot down by U.S. fighter jets out of caution.

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).