Spying from the Sky: This is How Stratospheric Balloon Technology Works | Technique

In recent days, the United States has spotted what appears to be a Chinese spy balloon flying over its airspace in the state of Montana along the Canadian border, according to what military leaders have confirmed. “Examples of this type of balloon activity have been observed in recent years,” Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said in a statement. While they are sometimes used to study the universe or make weather forecasts, there are also those who intend to use them as a spy weapon.

The balloon discovered by the US “travels at an altitude much higher than commercial air traffic and does not pose a military or physical threat to people on the ground.” With that description, it could be a stratospheric balloon. Or as designated by the Canadian Space Agency (ASC), a high-altitude balloon launched into the stratosphere. “They are the only type of airships that can operate in this region of the atmosphere (15 to 45 km altitude), which is too low for satellites, too high for aircraft, and too fast for missiles,” he says.

These balloons, according to the agency, are usually made of a supersoft helium-filled plastic that can be stretched into a giant inverted teardrop of a height similar to that of the Eiffel Tower. They are usually equipped with gondolas (baskets hanging from the globe), which can carry scientific, astronomical or weather-forecasting instruments, as well as daytime and thermal cameras, radar or even swarms of drones.

“Stratospheric balloons are a favorite platform for scientists and engineers as they can be used to test and develop space science at a cost much lower than the cost of a satellite (up to 40 times less) and provide the opportunity to conduct science experiments. Tangible results in a short period of time and get results quickly,” says Circle. Children’s services.

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Spy from heights

In addition to being used to conduct science experiments in a space-like environment, these balloons can be useful for monitoring natural disasters and surveillance missions. In fact, a military command in the Pentagon confirmed, in anonymous press statements, that the purpose of the balloon spotted by the United States “is clear espionage.”

Although similar incidents have occurred in the past, the time the balloon remained on U.S. soil is more time to strike than in other previous instances, according to the military command. As the ACS points out, stratospheric balloons require no engine or fuel and, in some cases, can make long-duration trips: “days, weeks, even months.”

For example, World View Enterprises, an Arizona-based company that develops technology for government agencies and NASA, got one of its balloons to stay in the air for 32 days in 2019. “Our stratospheric balloons fly five times closer to Earth than satellites, providing more detailed imagery and data collection capabilities,” comment its creators, who ensure that this information can be useful in marine and government research.

The US government has already taken steps to prevent the device from collecting sensitive information, according to Ryder. Meanwhile, Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, made it clear that he was checking information from Washington and urged caution. “Guessing and raising the tone before ascertaining the facts does not help an appropriate solution to the file,” he said.

reasonable price

In recent years, various forces have experimented to what extent this type of balloon can be used to monitor an area at an affordable price. In 2020, the US Senate Armed Services Committee recognized “the growing importance of stratospheric balloons for command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and missile defense missions.”

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The US Department of Defense invests itself in this type of device. In the past two years, the Pentagon has spent about $3.8 million (3.5 million euros) on balloon projects and plans to spend $27.1 million in fiscal 2023 to “continue work on multiple efforts,” according to budget documents cited by the portal. Politician.

While some of their programs are looking for ways to detect and even shoot down such balloons, others aspire to create their own balloon so that they can remain undetected in enemy airspace. This was reported by the American Journal Popular Mechanics Citing the COLD STAR-rated program (Covert Long-Dwell Stratospheric Architecture), whose goal will be to create a world equipped with high-precision sensors, autonomous navigation systems, and artificial intelligence.

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