No one’s pointing any fingers just yet, but an Illinois hobbyist balloon club says one of its missing inflatables was in the same area that an F-22 downed an unidentified object over the central Yukon last week. According to a report in Aviation Week, the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade’s pico balloon’s last reported position was at 38,910 feet off the coast of Alaska on Feb. 10. A wind model put it over the Yukon the next day.
Pico balloons are small inflatables filled with hydrogen that are equipped with GPS trackers and radio transmitters capable of communicating through surface-based Ham radio stations. Pico refers to the small size of the electronics package. The balloon and radio package weigh about half an ounce. NIBBB’s pico was launched on Oct. 10, 2022, and had been in flight for 123 days. Its station call was K9Y0. NIBBB said it was on its third global circumnavigation.
As NORAD ramped up the search for balloons possibly violating U.S. airspace, an object described as cylindrical in shape and silvery in color was tracked off Alaska and into the Yukon. An F-22 brought the object down with an AIM-9X on Feb. 11. NIBBB isn’t saying that their balloon was the F-22’s target, but its disappearance coincides with the shoot down. On Wednesday, President Biden conceded that the three objects downed by Air Force fighters were probably not surveillance balloons but high-altitude research or recreational balloons.
On its website, NIBBB reports that it has launched no fewer than 24 pico balloons from various sites and many have made impressive global circumnavigations. The balloons—made in China—are 32 inches in diameter with a 100-inch circumference that expands to full size when the envelope reaches altitudes as high as 50,000. The club said pre-stretching the envelope has resulted in more reliable performance. The electronics package is solar powered and operates only when the sun is above the horizon. With only 40 ma of power, the transmitters emit a weak signal that operators track through a computer program called Weak Signal Propagation Reporter (WSPR). The balloon costs about $16, while the F-22 that downed it goes for about $150 million, plus $400,000 for an AIM-9X.
I never knew this was a thing/hobby.
Does not appeal to me per se but it does sound pretty interesting and cool.
I’d not have thought a balloon could remain aloft so long. Its neat it went around the world multiple times.
If this WAS the case, why couldn’t the pilot simply have identified that it was a balloon rather than a cylindrical object with no known propulsion? Why was the government reporting so obtuse and tangential?
You must not deal with the government very often. With all the hoopla and hysteria over the Chinese spy balloon, I’m surprised they aren’t firing missiles at flocks of geese. Long range balloons with position and altitude reporting capabilities are a good, and inexpensive, way to map global wind patterns. The pre-stretching that Paul mentioned makes the envelope more durable to withstand the daily expansion and contraction caused by sunshine and darkness. I guess you could say that, since the balloon was made in China, that this was actually a Chinese “spy” balloon. 😉
Cue the opening scenes of, “1941” and Rudy Frasca’s P-40.
So IF this is the object taken down, no attempt was made to analyze any radio transmissions emanating from it ? The signals woulda been in the clear and ought to have been easily decoded. The frequency of the transmissions ought to have been recognized as falling within the ham bands, as well … tipping off what they were. Maybe they need to start sending some Navy ‘Growlers’ up before expending missiles?
Well … great test of the AIM-9X.
Thinking about it some more … this is a perfect market for the tiny stuff that uAvionix makes. We need still another alphabet soup organization within FAA to mandate ADS-B transponders on all balloons.
Give it time. I’m surprised that TSA hasn’t mandated the FAA to do exactly that (ADS-B).
The FAA is developing a Letter of Agreement (LOA) in which the FAA authorizes deviations from ADS-B Out equipage requirements for balloonists in Class C airspace. The FAA is working with operators in New Mexico and Colorado to develop LOAs which contain specific operational information for the airspace that will allow them to operate without ADS-B Out for a limited time. Each operator, whether a commercial business or individual pilot, will sign a LOA with the FAA to confirm they know the proper procedures in the Class C airspace that surrounds the areas. Alternatively, a representative of a balloon festival or association/society may enter into the agreement on behalf of its participants or members if certain conditions are met. The LOAs will be valid through March 2023.
These balloons carry very small payloads and have limited power capacity. The Amateur Radio transmitters are putting out only 30-100 milliwatts of RF. There are ADS-B chips in development in that range. Tie into the GPS and it might be possible to implement this.
Right now High School boys all over the country are buying large weather balloons and attaching rolls of tinfoil underneath them just to watch the news to see if an F-22’s will shoot them down.
Question 1: It only weighted 1/2 ounce? And an AIM9 can detect and hit that? Also any hobby plane I fly over 1/2 ounce must be registered and flown below 400 feet. Question 2: Does the FAA require notification of a launch of an object that will travel to the stratosphere? Weird.
Unmanned balloons are regulated by Part 101. There are some notification requirements, but only if the balloon payload weighs more than four pounds. And once it’s above 60,000 feet, it’s on its own.
Currently there are no transponder requirements, just some kind of radar-reflector (which could be the gas bag if made of the right material, apparently).
Here’s a link to the regs: