High-Altitude Balloons Aren’t Just for Spying. Here’s How Scientists Use Them

Students, scientists and hobbyists are beginning to worry for their research as balloons are increasingly shot down

scientists inflate a large white balloon on an icy landscape
NASA scientists launch a scientific ballloon from the Halley Research Station in Antarctica on Jan. 30, 2014. NASA / BARREL / David Milling

Since the United States government discovered and shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon floating over the country earlier this month, both public and governmental attention to unidentified aerial objects has been heightened. From February 10 to 12, for example, the government shot three more unidentified objects out of the sky. 

It now appears those three mystery floaters were probably not spy balloons. Instead, they were “most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research,” President Joe Biden said in a statement

Now, some researchers are growing concerned for the safety of their scientific instruments, and they worry that a possible increase in regulations will make it harder to do their work. 

“This is a total shocker,” Terry Deshler, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Wyoming, tells the New York Times’ William J. Broad. “For years you didn’t hear anything about balloons. … Now, we’re on the lookout for any kind of flying object.”

At any given moment, hundreds to thousands of flying objects may be occupying the airspace overhead, writes Sophie Bushwick for Scientific American

The National Weather Service, for example, launches almost 100 balloons twice per day from its offices across the country. These balloons provide local data for meteorologists, computer forecast models and research. They can spend about two hours in flight, rise more than 100,000 feet in altitude and expand as they float higher, stretching to about 20 feet in diameter. 

Other organizations, such as NASA, use much larger and longer-lasting balloons for research. Every year, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility launches 10 to 15 football stadium-sized balloons worldwide. These balloons can carry up to 8,000 pounds and fly to an altitude of about 23 miles. 

Students and school children also launch balloons of varying sizes for research projects. Montana State University students have been launching balloons high into the atmosphere since 2001, Angela Des Jardins, a physicist at the university, tells NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel. These balloons are much smaller than the Chinese balloon, but Des Jardins tells the publication she still has concerns. 

“Student groups would get together and a lot of times they would invite other groups to come watch a balloon being launched,” Des Jardins tells NPR. “But now it’s a little bit more of a sense of, ‘Oh, are the people watching, like, worried about this? Are they going to bring a gun and try and shoot down the balloon?’”

Companies, hobbyists and scientists also use balloons for various purposes. One of the three objects that was shot down this month is suspected to be a pico balloon—a lightweight plastic balloon carrying a tiny, amatuer radio transmitter. Based on circumstantial evidence, some now believe the pico balloon belonged to a hobbyist group known as the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade. Their balloon, called K9YO-15, had circled the Earth six times before the group lost touch with it—on the same day and in the same general area as the mystery object was grounded. 

Gregory Guzik, a physicist at Louisiana State University who works with large, high-altitude balloons, tells NPR that too much of the current focus on balloons has been on their military threats. 

“This other side of the story—the useful, practical ballooning that helps students, helps technology, and our better understanding of the universe—really needs to get out there,” he tells the publication.

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