back to article Chinese balloon that US shot down was 'crammed' with American hardware

It's been months since "spy balloon" fever gripped the United States, but the headline-grabbing flying object – alleged to have been deployed by China – is back in the news. Preliminary findings from the US inspection of its wreckage show a whole bunch of commercially available hardware made in the States. That in and of …

  1. martinusher Silver badge

    Notice how....

    ...we're never told what was found in the balloon debris, just that it had unspecified "American technology and Chinese sensors". This isn't unusual; restricting information is the key to guiding the narrative.

    Assuming it was collecting generic data from half way around the world and not just weather information it would need to transmit that data to something. (Wait a minute -- it wasn't able to transmit the data back to the PRC or something....). It had a few options for this -- satellite, contacting the terrestrial phone network, all the stuff that a generic remote sensor might have. I presume its 'crammed with American components' because it had a Raspberry Pi or something similar in it.

    The thing is, if our government wants to maintain its credibility its got to stop gaslighting us. This sort of pap may work for feeding generic journalists but this is a technical site so its readers are used to 'technology' in all its manifestations. Normally we'd treat these brain farts as just noise but since they're now intruding into our daily lives and work I feel that we have to push back. I'm also expected to vote for these clowns in a year (mainly because the alternative is beyond horrible, its downright terrifying) but, honestly, are they worth the time of day?

    1. John Hawkins
      Alien

      Re: Notice how....

      "American technology and Chinese sensors" could of course be a cover up for what they really found.

    2. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

      Re: Notice how....

      "I'm also expected to vote for these clowns in a year"

      Don't vote. It only encourages them.

      1. that one in the corner Silver badge

        Re: Notice how....

        Send in Lady Constance de Coverlet, she'll keep them occupied and unable to cause any more trouble.

        1. Willy Ekerslike
          Pint

          Re: Notice how....

          ISIRTA - that's a blast from the past - and a very welcome one, too. Have a virtual pint on me, sir.

      2. Sora2566 Bronze badge

        Re: Notice how....

        Taking your hands off the steering wheel will do nothing to steady the course of the car.

      3. Grinning Bandicoot

        Re: Notice how....

        Vote! Always vote just not the way the supposed overlords want. If polled tell 'em anything just not your voting plans. A no show is a nod to the continued low brow entertainment known as POLITICS. We might not be immediately satisfied but after a few heads adorning pikes the message might get through.

    3. that one in the corner Silver badge

      Re: Notice how....

      > 'crammed with American components' because it had a Raspberry Pi or something similar in it.

      *American* components?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Notice how....

        Well they aren't *UK* components.

        1. Azium

          Re: Notice how....

          My Raspberries Pi were made in Swansea.

          1. Siberian Hamster

            Re: Notice how....

            Bridgend actually, credit (card sized PC) where it's due.

            1. phuzz Silver badge

              Re: Notice how....

              I can't fault anyone for blocking Bridgend from their mind.

          2. martinusher Silver badge

            Re: Notice how....

            The fab line might be in Swansea or Bridgend or wherever but the parts will include "American Technology" -- and if you've been paying attention then you'll notice that it doesn't really matter where things are actually made that allows us to assume control over them. There's a good chance that all the components for the line were imported (including the machinery the line was running).

            BTW -- If you've been *really* paying attention you've have noticed that we've been doing this for 40 years (it wasn't China back then it was Russia but same difference). One of the more interesting tidbids of information about this is that the same players who were blocking technology exports from Greenock would be the ones blocking technology from Bridgend. (Except that Pis aren't on the Entity List, of course -- I was just being sarcastic about "American Technology").

            1. Grinning Bandicoot

              Re: Notice how....

              That your called 'American Technology' used by the PRC is really components from the ROC. That should make some rolling in laughter and heads rolling'

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

    4. Wzrd1 Silver badge

      Re: Notice how....

      I presume its 'crammed with American components' because it had a Raspberry Pi or something similar in it.

      So, the CPU came from Airstrip One? Thank you for the assessment from Minitrue.

      As is typical in the intelligence community, it gets classified and this is a leak that's highly frowned upon. Alas, it's also typical of the US, who couldn't keep a secret - ever.

      Which thoroughly undermines every conspiracy theorist on the planet.

      1. hoola Silver badge

        Re: Notice how....

        American components that were ultimately made in China or Taiwan.....

      2. CoolKoon

        Re: Notice how....

        Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't Airstrip One just licensing the IP cores while the CPU itself is made somewhere else?

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Notice how....

          Yes, and that Airstrip One company is Japanese owned too!

    5. Dave95060

      Re: Notice how....

      The very first thing that any engineer would design into a spy balloon sensor system is the ability to "phone home" and send/receive commands, software updates, etc. from the mother ship. This statement is just not credible.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Notice how....

        Ah, but it was a "stealth" spy balloon running under "radio silence" while over enemy territory, storing the data for when it moves off-shore and then barfs the data up to a CCCP satellite.

    6. FlamingDeath Silver badge

      Re: Notice how....

      Is the gubbermint worth the time of day.

      NO, just….no

  2. goldcd

    Made in America?

    Really?

    Well I suppose the US can pat themselves on the back for still making all the parts required to create a spy-balloon on-shore.

    1. Crypto Monad Silver badge

      "crammed" with off-the-shelf components that could have easily been purchased online

      ... and which were all manufactured in China, for American companies.

  3. Death Boffin
    Big Brother

    Really?

    It's difficult to believe the balloon wasn't transmitting data back to China. Were the Chinese going to parachute the sensor down when it got back over China and collect the Temu-sourced memory stick with the data?

    1. DS999 Silver badge

      Re: Really?

      I saw reports the Pentagon believed they had jammed its ability to transmit data back home, that's why they were comfortable letting it continue on until it was somewhere it could be safely shot down.

      Presumably it would have relied on transmitting to Chinese satellites, but it wouldn't be that hard to figure out the frequencies being used and have an AWACS (or probably a drone equivalent these days) flying overhead putting out a lot of noise on those bands to drown out the much lower power signals than the balloon relying on solar/battery power could have managed.

      1. An_Old_Dog Silver badge

        Red Spy Balloon Phoning Home

        If I were designing it, I'd have had a piezoelectric element with a mirror stuck to it, pulsing the reflection of the sun to send data to the satellite(s) reading its take. AWACS wouldn't jam that.

        1. Wzrd1 Silver badge

          Re: Red Spy Balloon Phoning Home

          Because, only the sun can produce light? You'd aim the contraption how, given the accuracy you'd need to straight reflect a bit of sunlight that'll inverse square to dimness in no time at all?

          Still, if anyone is to spy on me, you're welcome to it. I know that blocking your reporting can be done by someone only halfway through electronics school.

          1. YetAnotherLocksmith Silver badge

            Re: Red Spy Balloon Phoning Home

            Only tell your secrets at night, you'll be safe.

          2. An_Old_Dog Silver badge

            Re: Red Spy Balloon Phoning Home

            Not because "only the sun can produce light", but because it's a super-freaking bright light source which the balloon's electronics package doesn't have to pay for, energy-wise.

            Make a "framework" of elastic straps over the balloon. This framework holds the electronics package, mirror, etc. "on top" of the balloon, and a heavier counterweight "on the bottom" of the balloon. The mirror is aluminized mylar with aluminum struts to hold it in shape. General mirror orientation is done via small electric motors (with lubricant which does not freeze at temps encountered at 60K feet AGL). Fine orientation is done by the piezoelectrics. Sensors tell the electronics package which way it is pointing, so it can send appropriate correction commands to the motors and piezos. Anticipated objection: "But the motors will make the balloon spin, too, not just the mirror!" Answer: when the weight of the mirror is sufficiently-vanishingly-small compared to the weight of the balloon, framework, etc., this effect is minimized. Further, the sensors can tell the computer how much "extra" it has to rotate the mirror to get it into the desired direction. The Chinese balloon carried a package weighing more than 2,000 pounds. How much does some aluminized mylar weigh?

            Heliography is an old, oft-forgotten idea, but do recall those backpackers' mirrors, each with a hole drilled in the middle, so you can send Morse code to any airplanes (airliners, even, flying at 32~45K feet AGL) in the vicinity after you've gotten yourself lost in the wilderness.

            Great precision is not required to hit the satelite (yes, it might be intercepted by other satellites, but the spies either don't care, or can encrypt it if they do). The beam only has to sweep across the targetted satellite once for each pulse transmitted. Yes, the mirror-type communicator works only at certain times and locations, e.g., not on the "dark" side of the Earth. The electronics could store the data until it was in an effective light-communications-zone.

            This is one of those cases where being sloppy is still good enough to get the job done quickly and cheaply.

        2. imanidiot Silver badge

          Re: Red Spy Balloon Phoning Home

          That would be REALLY, REALLY slow. As in, you'd probably not get more than one or 2 pictures out at dismal resolution slow.

          If you're going to be doing optical comms you're more likely to go to laser, but that's a challenge and a half by itself. Not to mention there's a REALLY big balloon in the way so you have to transmit quite far off the vertical to get any LoS, putting even more atmosphere in your way to hinder comms

          1. that one in the corner Silver badge

            Re: Red Spy Balloon Phoning Home

            > there's a REALLY big balloon in the way

            Put the silver patch on top of the balloon!

            Come on people, don't let the nay-sayers win! To the garden sheds of the world and we can figure out how to make this gasbag heliograph work.

            1. Korev Silver badge
              Pint

              Re: Red Spy Balloon Phoning Home

              What a shame Lester's not here any more to do this

          2. An_Old_Dog Silver badge

            Re: Red Spy Balloon Phoning Home

            Why do you think it would be slow? Piezoelectric transducers are available which can vibrate up to at least 10MHz. (Order from: https://acs-international.com/instruments/transducers/piezoelectric-1-10-mhz/)

        3. hoola Silver badge

          Re: Red Spy Balloon Phoning Home

          Straight out of Bond.......

      2. Wzrd1 Silver badge

        Re: Really?

        Well, it could be jammed from the air, but it'd be easier to simply blast noise at the satellites themselves, drowning out anything that the balloon tries to transmit. Ground based transmitters have a hell of a lot more capability and power over airborne ones.

        Still, it's six of one, half dozen of the other.

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: Really?

          it'd be easier to simply blast noise at the satellites themselves

          Easier perhaps, but could be viewed as an act of war as the satellites would obviously do much more than just receive transmissions from balloons. At best it would be an invitation to China to blast noise at our satellites.

        2. Grinning Bandicoot

          Re: Really?

          Who says the PRC need use satellite frequencies. They kinds,sorta do their own thing treaty-wise. There remains lots of old VHF modulators out there and the ones I have came from [drum roll] China. Yeup the good ol' PRC were churning these so the CCTV could be watched on old box. The size of the gas bag could allow all sorts of SHF beams while shielding from below. Jamming ask Moscow how well it worked and check out QRP radio.

    2. CrackedNoggin Bronze badge

      Re: Really?

      Maybe the US technology was an active AT&T SIM card.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Really?

        Now, now, no need to stretch credibility. Active! (Shakes head)

    3. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Really?

      Radio transmission is (unless you get optimal atmospheric conditions) pretty much Line of Sight only, so it stops at the horizon. You might get further with a long wavelength and atmospheric bouncing but it's not a technique that can always be relied upon (especially during the day). My suspicion is that the Chinese were expecting a different weather pattern and for the balloon to start drifting far further north, to the point they'd be able to get direct comms with it or at least have it away from US surveillance again. A backup plan was probably to wait for it to drift out over the ocean and have a ship make contact and download the data, which was thwarted by it getting unceremoniously Kaboomed the second it went "feet wet"

    4. Danny 14

      Re: Really?

      if it was temu spurced then that 64gb stick started failing after the first 8gb was filled, so no worries.

    5. Robert 22

      Re: Really?

      Early US spy satellites used cassettes of photographic film that were returned to earth for retrieval.

  4. ChoHag Silver badge

    > It's time that your administration fully exposes Beijing's efforts to collect intelligence against the United States and the threats posed by such activities

    Yeah, um ... you really don't want to pull that thread.

    1. Ex IBMer

      Pull on it - It's fun to watch

      Since time began, nations have been spying on other nations. The reality is that we Just Don't Talk About It.

      Because as soon as Bobby dobs Jill in, Jill then goes and spills the dirt on Bobby.

      Go on -Pull the thread - Pull the threat - Pull the thread - Just wait till I have my comfy chair and popcorn. :-)

    2. Wzrd1 Silver badge

      "Yeah, um ... you really don't want to pull that thread."

      Yeah, there'd be a whole lot of show me yours and I'll show you mine. First lesson, even friends spy on each other out in the real world.

      Second lesson, remember that thing in Roswell? It was a US spy balloon that was capturing fallout from Soviet nuclear atmospheric testing. That got declassified a handful of years ago. The souper seekrit alien metal, honeycomb aluminum, which was brand new tech at that time. The only aliens in that area were from Mexico, on their way to pick US crops for cheap.

    3. localzuk Silver badge

      Those who call for such exposure seem to forget that it goes both ways. Or do they think the USA isn't intelligence gathering in China?

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "Yeah, um ... you really don't want to pull that thread."

      Wasn't it reported at the time that there had been previous Chinese spy balloons during Trumps term in power and *nothing* was done at that time?

    5. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      The authors of the letter don't want to pull the thread. They're just grandstanding.1 Anything that makes the news is political fodder for someone.

      1Well, the lunatic fringe – MTG and Mean Girl Boebert and the like – might have other motives, but they're scarcely capable of political calculation, or indeed any other sort.

    6. Grinning Bandicoot

      In that case check out ISBN: 978-1-68247-304-7 Chinese Communist Espionage. This is the E-book the publisher has it in soft cover.

  5. Brian 3

    Sounds like it had a GoPro of some sort on board. I mean, those have bluetooth, 2.4ghz is sometimes used for radar, right? Bam, I cracked the code. The reason it couldn't transmit back to China was because it needed to be a lot closer to home first. The chances I'm right are pretty high, if it actually had anything 'disturbing' it'd be exposed to shame China.

  6. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "Initial criticisms centered on the administration's decision not to shoot the balloon down while it was over land for fear of the harm it could cause"

    Perhaps it would be a good idea to take whatever of the gondola that survived the shooting down a few thousand feet above some suitable idiot's house and release it. It might help them get the message.

    1. very angry man

      Merkins don't usually care about collateral damage

      1. YetAnotherLocksmith Silver badge

        They do when it's their side, and the world is watching.

      2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Yes but it is very difficult to shoot down a high altitude balloon and be sure it will land on a high school

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don’t encourage the Republicans

    They worry about China but covert a crazed ex-leader who tried to overthrow their own government.

    1. Strahd Ivarius Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Don’t encourage the Republicans

      This is because he is an orange menace, not a yellow one.

  8. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "tarnish US credibility"

    Sorry, but Republicans are doing the top job there.

    1. very angry man

      Re: "tarnish US credibility"

      test US resolve and tarnish US credibility

      You beat me to it,US has credibility?who would have guessed it?

      1. Wzrd1 Silver badge

        Re: "tarnish US credibility"

        Whatever are you talking about?

        The US has incredible credibility, absolutely incredible.

        The noise is due to shock at, after a review of older data, this was at least the sixth balloon that flew that course. A lot of leaders had seriously red faces once that became known, although their high level bosses faces were the most fetching shade of purple.

    2. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: "tarnish US credibility"

      Nah, the "Democrats" aren't doing the US any favours either. In fact, your entire political system has lately been a clown show for multiple reasons.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just Radio Shack Parts, Sir

    ""It's time that your administration fully exposes Beijing's efforts to collect intelligence against the United States and the threats posed by such activities," the senators wrote. "Beijing continues to test US resolve and tarnish US credibility – we must respond with strength, or risk further aggression from America's adversaries.""

    Did I misread the part that the balloon contained a nuclear warhead?

  10. xyz Silver badge

    Follow up question...

    Any news on the 3 smaller "not balloons" balloons that Maverick and Co splashed?

  11. Intractable Potsherd

    Well...

    ... if (and it's a big "if") the information being given here is even halfway true, this device could have come from/been built by anywhere. A collection of items, some with English writing, some with Chinese doesn't exactly pinpoint it's origins.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just smuggling US high tech back to China to copy?

    You heard!

  13. Reginald O.

    Help Wanted China: New PR Guy for Balloon Launches

    It WAS a spy balloon and the WHOLE world saw the US gov shoot it down over the ocean, and yet they got NO data whatsoever.

    Well, I am not seeing any good news, for China about this.

    1. Version 1.0 Silver badge
      Windows

      Re: Help Wanted China: New PR Guy for Balloon Launches

      Maybe the device stored the images in files for access .... photo0001.img ... all the way to ... photo9999.img so maybe the FBI opened the files to view them ... oops!

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Help Wanted China: New PR Guy for Balloon Launches

        It was a cheap Aliexpress dashcam and the card was corrupted

  14. Marty McFly Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    "so whatever US secrets it managed to scrape are likely still secret."

    Bravo-Sierra!

    They found out plenty about our decision making process and how quickly we will respond. And how vulnerable we would be to an EMP attack with the next balloon slowly drifting over the continental United States...

  15. boris9k3

    If you think we've calmed down since then......

    Anyone that is NOT worried about this is a fool. The "balloon" should have been shot down the instance there was visual conformation it was not a commercial or private flight with people on board and it entered USA air space.

    There is no excuse for ANY action less than this.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: If you think we've calmed down since then......

      Yee hah! That varmint be a stranger! Whare's ma shootin' irons?

      Thanks for confirming the stereotype.

      1. boris9k3

        Re: If you think we've calmed down since then......

        I guess you have nothing to protect. Are you the "stereotype" that never gets off the couch to make your life better and want to preserve what you created?

  16. rcxb Silver badge

    US E-waste

    So China was just returning their e-waste back to the US companies that made it?

    I'm terribly disappointed "Chinese Spy Balloon" never became a popular dish for takeaways.

  17. Tron Silver badge

    A couple of points.

    Shouldn't we be congratulating China on the use of greener spy tech? Balloons have to be more eco friendly than spy planes and satellite launches. The Americans really need to transition to greener spying.

    We are always told that Chinese companies are monitoring us in the firmware of their kit. So why aren't the US monitoring the Chinese in the firmware of their kit? Ban US kit from being sold to China and this opportunity vanishes.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: A couple of points.

      "Ban US kit from being sold to China and this opportunity vanishes."

      Much of that "US kit is made in China.

  18. freedom166

    A lot of spy birds near white house Why not shot them with missiles?

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