A Lost Weather Balloon, Or More?

Feb 24, 2023 By Lauren T, Writer Intern
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In late January, American officials were alarmed by the appearance of a high-altitude balloon in US airspace. The balloon was about three school buses wide and seemed to be remotely controlled.

Though seemingly innocuous, the balloon set off a diplomatic row between the US and China. The Biden administration accused China of using the balloon for surveillance purposes. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken postponed a planned visit. When the balloon passed South Carolina, the US military shot it down over the nearby waters.

Chinese officials reacted to the destruction of the balloon with outrage. They claimed that the balloon was conducting meteorological research and had been blown off course. They accused the US of violating international law and also claimed that the US had launched at least 10 similar balloons over Chinese airspace.

Let’s take a closer look. What are weather balloons, and how could they be used for surveillance?

Balloons Beloved by Meteorologists

Weather balloons are special devices employed by meteorologists to monitor air conditions. The data they collect is crucial to informing computer forecast models and supporting research. We can thank weather balloons for accurate predictions and measurements of wind direction and air pressure!

Balloons record data at extraordinary altitudes, often up to 100,000 feet! This is a much higher altitude than that at which both commercial and military planes fly.

Each weather balloon consists of two components. A flexible section made of latex or synthetic rubber comprises the most prominent part of the balloon. Filled with helium or hydrogen, it expands as the balloon rises up into the atmosphere. Attached to the balloon is a special instrument called a radiosonde. The radiosonde’s transmitter sends that data to tracking equipment on the ground.

A Lost Weather Balloon, or Something More?

Spy balloons have been prominent in recent history. During the Civil War, manned balloons were used by both Union and Confederate forces to observe the other army’s movements. These are later abandoned due to logistical issues.

Balloons were employed centuries later by both the US and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Since then, balloons paired with advanced technology such as video cameras and sensors have been used to monitor the US southern borders and used for surveillance during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

China’s claim that the balloon was blown off course appears to be true. In fact, US officials suspect that the balloon was initially launched from Hainan. Meant for Hawaii or Guam, the balloon veered from its intended trajectory due to prevailing winds. However, the retrieved wreckage of the balloon suggests that it had been used for surveillance purposes. The balloon was equipped with several high-tech sensors that could have tapped into radio and mobile transmissions.

Because of the sheer quantity of balloons up in the air at any given time, most objects have passed unnoticed over the years. However, this incident has put the US government on alert. Other balloons had also been spotted over Latin America and Taiwan. Meanwhile, three unidentified objects were shot down over Alaska and Canada.

Where does this leave us? Unfortunately, much like a weather balloon inflating, the political controversy will only continue to expand.

Sources: BBC, Washington Post, NY Times, Reuters, Sciencing, Weather.gov