After the media storm that followed the official shooting down of an alleged Chinese spy balloon, the United States Air Force downed three other unidentified objects. There is an increasing possibility they were harmless civilian weather balloons.
While no United States government department has officially said what these objects that were shot down actually were, the US military and President Joe Biden have said that these “mystery” objects were likely private crafts not tied to spying of any kind. Now an Illinois-based hobbyist group has reported one of its civilian weather balloons as missing, and its last known transmission came the same day a Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter jet shot down a similar-sounding unidentified object in the same general area.
Aviation Week reports that a local hobbyist club called the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade (NIBBB) has said its globe-trotting balloon was “missing in action” as of February 11 and its last known location was over the central Yukon Territory in Alaska. That location is relatively close to where the US Air Force says it shot down an unidentified object. The timing seems more than coincidental.
What little has been said by the US government of these unidentified objects shares a lot in common with what is known as pico balloons, relatively small weather balloons that float on the wind and communicate their location via radio links and a global positioning tracking device. These balloons are so small that they generally don’t have the ability to carry batteries, and thus can only communicate when they receive solar power.
There are a few varieties of pico ballons, but the ones used by the Illinois hobbyist group were made by Scientific Balloon Solutions and have an estimated floating altitude of anywhere between 41,000 feet and 61,000 feet depending on the model. The altitude of the objects identified and destroyed by the US Air Force fighter jets were somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 feet, and government officials have specifically said that objects at that altitude are dangerous to aircraft, hence why they were shot down.
Photo from KSVI-TV shows a massive Chinese spy balloon over Montana. The U.S. military is tracking it pic.twitter.com/BWUBERWO1J
— BNO News Live (@BNODesk) February 2, 2023
“We did assess that their altitudes were considerably lower than the Chinese high-altitude balloon and did pose a threat to civilian commercial air traffic,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
“And while we have no specific reason to suspect that they were conducting surveillance of any kind, we couldn’t rule that out.”
Rules for Flying Private Balloons
Pico balloons are not expensive and while drones are required to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, individual balloons do not have to be registered.
“The FAA has clarified that weather balloons under Part 101 do not fall under the new UAS/drone laws,” weather balloon company Launch With Us writes.
Stratostar, another high-altitude balloon company, agrees.
“No license is required to launch a balloon in the United States. However, it is critical that anyone planning a flight takes time to receive proper safety training. StratoStar has years of experience launching and recovering flight gear all over the country, and we personally train each of our customers in the safety and best practices of conducting a mission to the edge of space while meeting government guidelines for high-altitude weather balloon operations,” the company writes.
That said, the FAA must be notified within six to 24 hours ahead of a launch with the estimated date and time of launching, amended as necessary to remain within plus or minus 30 minutes. The cruising altitude, forecast trajectory, payload, duration of the flight, and forecasted return to Earth must also be provided. The FAA additionally asks that balloon operators follow a simple set of rules in order to comply with regulations.
Because these balloons lack propulsion after they are sent skyward, owners have no way to alter their flight path, so it would be entirely possible that the US government wouldn’t have any idea if an object was civilian-owned if it deviated from the original flight path sent to the FAA before launch, unless it specifically asked. While the balloon owner is required to send current location data to the FAA when asked, they aren’t required to do so otherwise and are only required to monitor it.
The heightened alert caused by the Chinese-owned high-altitude object would put the US government on edge and would certainly explain why it targeted other objects above the country.
Until the US government fully explains what it shot down, speculation will continue to run rampant.
Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.