back to article Don't shoot! DARPA wants to capture future spy balloons in one piece

DARPA wants to be ready the next time a foreign spy balloon does a tour of the US, so it's launching a program to figure out how to capture one and its payload instead of simply shooting it out of the sky.  Capturing Aerial Payloads to Unleash Reliable Exploitation, or Project CAPTURE, was announced by DARPA with the …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Large, slow, fairly fragile target.its surely asking to be opened up by a suitable laser. Not a single shot pinhole but maybe a nice meter or two of perforation. Or even a nice slice.

    The flapping balloon remnants might slow the descent a bit but probably not enough to prevent severely deleterious effects of lithospheric braking but it might well help a skyhook type grab.

    1. jake Silver badge

      Actually ...

      ... a pinhole, causing slow leakage, is EXACTLY what they need.

      Then catch the slowly descending object with a similar system to that which they used to catch falling film packets ejected from spy satellites. If you're unfamiliar with this, look up Project CORONA.

      680kg is fairly heavy, but we've got big, solid, very capable aircraft these days, and modern bungee cords should be able to handle the load.

  2. IceC0ld

    Project CAPTURE

    Capturing Aerial Payloads to Unleash Reliable Exploitation, or Project CAPTURE

    C'mon people, here we use TITSUP for ANYTHING that can be tortuously malformed into the [ admittedly ] awkward constraints of our acronym of choice :o)

    so I propose the following

    T - otal

    I - nterception

    T - ool

    S - urprises

    U - pper

    P - ackaged

    S - py

  3. TheMaskedMan Silver badge

    I suppose a wing walker with a large pin is out of the question?

  4. stiine Silver badge
    Holmes

    really?

    You mean shooting at them with air to air missles was a rookie mistake?

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: really?

      Not a rookie mistake.

      Rather, politically expedient.

    2. druck Silver badge

      Re: really?

      I don't know why they didn't switch to cannons and see if it would come down a bit more gently with a couple of 20mm holes, rather than a 20lb of Sidewinder warhead.

      1. Orv Silver badge

        My guess is the speed difference was probably too high for an accurate cannon shot. I think there's also a question of whether it would come down quickly *enough* with just some slow leaks in the envelope. Ideally you want to be able to bring it down for a quick, controlled landing, so it doesn't drag across miles of power lines and such.

        1. jake Silver badge

          "My guess is the speed difference was probably too high for an accurate cannon shot."

          They fire at, and hit, tanks on the ground, no?

          "I think there's also a question of whether it would come down quickly *enough* with just some slow leaks in the envelope."

          Then clearly you'll need more leaks. Rumo(u)r has it there are devices known as "computers" which could help you calculate how many such leaks it would take.

          "Ideally you want to be able to bring it down for a quick, controlled landing"

          Or just drop it just low enough to pluck it out of the air with one of your government of choice's heavy lifters. Line up four or five such aircraft in case the first one (two, three...) miss the snatch.

          "so it doesn't drag across miles of power lines and such."

          That's why you pluck it out of the air with one of your government of choice's heavy lifters. If it looks like it'll hit the ground anyway, time to give it a coup de grâce and try again with the next one.

    3. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

      Re: really?

      You mean shooting at them with air to air missles was a rookie mistake?

      They are American. Overwhelming overkill force is SOP and sublety is for more professional militaries..

      1. LogicGate Silver badge

        Re: really?

        It could have been worse.

        -It could have been american law enforcement.

        "..we got this obsolete nuke handed down from the armed forces, and by gawd, we sure as hell will use it!!

  5. Rikki Tikki

    Suppose they manage to capture a balloon, and it contains only a recorded message:

    "Ha ha, we spent $5000 on this balloon. How many billions did you spend trying to capture it?"

    1. jake Silver badge

      Then we make political hay out of the childishness of whoever sent it?

      Rumo(u)r has it that Pooh Bear hates people laughing at him.

      1. Ideasource Bronze badge

        So the USA gets get more egg on face as the USA's own, along with the rest of the world, goes "what a tantrum throwing xxxl baby" , "look what an easy Mark they are , let's waste their time some more cuz it's funny to watch them throw a fit."

        Definitely not all but there's enough people with sense of humor and perceptiveness enough to notice a tantrum when they see it and laugh their butts off. . And there's always a new batch of foolhardy engineering minded teenagers about to learn the hard way for lack of experience how to be discreet.

        I could go on but between the two I've already described there's more than enough.

      2. Ideasource Bronze badge

        What's even more childish than making a joke?

        Throwing a tantrum over a joke.

  6. Reginald O.

    Prototype High Altitude Recovery Vehicles (HARVEE) exist already.

    HARVEEs already exist in the form of the various moon, planet and Mars landing vehicles.

    Depending on the altitude and circumstances a helicopter or slow cargo airplane gets the un-manned HARVEE close, then it's ejected at which time it self propels itself to the balloon, hooks or grabs it with it's mechanical arm then guides it down to earth to land in a safe place. I assume the HARVEE would weigh enough to drag the object down with the balloon still inflated and at the same time make the balloon more manage due to less relative weight to maneuver. I like the idea of something along the lines of a jet or rocket propelled quad-copter although duel engine systems might make it more versatile. I am absolutely sure NASA/DARPA could whip one of these up in short order due to the many years experience of designing the various space landing vehicles. I wish I could be part of the team that makes one and launches it for the first time. That would be the thrill of a life time. That would be something to be proud of for sure. Wow!

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: Prototype High Altitude Recovery Vehicles (HARVEE) exist already.

      The article states that the altitude of concern is over 60,000 feet.

      I did a quick search and found that helicopters have a cieling of 25,000 feet, so completely useless for this task.

      A cargo airplane can fly higher (the article states 40,000), but that does not mean they all can and that certainly does not mean that a slow cargo plane is designed for operating at 60,000 feet. It's useless to fly cargo that high.

      The article clearly states that the only jet plane that can operate at that altitude is a fighter jet (the F-22 being one of the few), and they are not made to intercept balloons floating at mere feet per second.

      I think a laser is indeed the best weapon. Put a prick in the envelope, let it sink gradually and then catch it with a skyhook. Won't cost billions, will work every time.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: Prototype High Altitude Recovery Vehicles (HARVEE) exist already.

        It does seem that inducing a slow leak is probably the best way to go in terms of undamaged payload, unless you can find a way to sneak up on it with e.g. another balloon and clamp a couple of hundred extra kilograms to the payload.

        That ought to bring it down slowly, but might need repeating at increasingly lower altitudes.

        Or you could clamp a lot of extra weight but with some sort of bouncy protection; I think there was a Mars mission landed like that?

        1. LogicGate Silver badge

          Re: Prototype High Altitude Recovery Vehicles (HARVEE) exist already.

          20mm exploding rounds may result in balloon burst.

          I suspect that developing shotgun (dispersing) rounds for the M61A2 20mm Gatling gun to create small leaks and then using aerial capture when the balloon is lower (or just waiting for it to land) may be a spectacular but cost effective solution.

          A laser may allow for a more standoff capability, but I am not sure that this is needed.

          1. Orv Silver badge

            Re: Street signs

            I suspect a balloon wouldn't provide enough resistance to detonate contact shells. They'd probably sail straight through and explode on impact with the ground, much like the unguided missiles used in the Battle of Palmdale.

      2. UCAP Silver badge

        Re: Prototype High Altitude Recovery Vehicles (HARVEE) exist already.

        ... Put a prick in the envelope...

        Most envelopes are too small to fit a government minister into, but I guess if you squeeze them enough they'll sort-of fit in.

      3. Reginald O.

        Re: Prototype High Altitude Recovery Vehicles (HARVEE) exist already.

        Sorry, you don't have the right stuff for my team. Maybe a career in fast food service might be more to your speed.

        Both the C5 and C17 are jet engine cargo planes. And, I guess you missed the part where the HARVEE is going to have engines, jet and/or rocket propelled, too.

        Besides balloons aren't always at 60,000 feet, sometimes a lot lower. Indeed, there's no reason the HARVEE couldn't have a detachable balloon to help it gain altitude, towed up to a certain altitude, then released.

        Any rocket scientists out there?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Self destruct?

    You would expect any sensitive payload to have some sort of self destruct.

    Not a good idea to get that too close to an aircraft.

  8. DS999 Silver badge

    By announcing it they have made it irrelevant

    If I was China I would include a big capacitor next to the device's flash memory connected to an altimeter, and unless its radio receives a password to disable the function the capacitor will be released to fry everything the instant altitude drops below say 10k meters. Multiple capacitors if they have anything else sensitive they want to protect like the image sensor, specialized radio receivers or whatever. Though I imagine most if not all of it is off the shelf technology, and it is the programming and collected data the US would really like to see.

    Had they kept this project secret they might have been able to collect one or two of them before they were modified with the brain zap technology.

    1. pdh

      Re: By announcing it they have made it irrelevant

      Unless of course they already have a suitable technique for capturing these kinds of things, and are trying to bait rivals into sending more balloons sooner rather than later... i.e. this announcement could be a ploy to convince rivals that no such capability currently exists.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    project discoverer

    Does it even need to be high altitude?

    Seems to me they need to work out how to pop the balloon and not harm the payoad?

    The corona series of spy satellites were designed to de-orbit and be collected mid air way back in the 1960s,

    Sure, the altitude was lower but its bindun

    I'm thinking humping big load carrier 'plane dragging a trawler net with some sort of lifting surface on the corners to catch whatever Maverick hasn't blown to smithereens

  10. EricB123 Silver badge

    Old and Simple

    An old Daisy BB gun will do the job and save the taxpayers, err, I mean the government deficit millions of dollars.

  11. Richard Pennington 1

    I refer you to my previous statement ...

    Better than shooting it down ...

    If I were the US military, I would be interesting in capturing the balloon intact, rather than shooting it down. The intelligence is clearer if you don't have to do the jigsaw first.

    [My comment posted on 3rd February when the story first broke.]

  12. martinusher Silver badge

    Kepp repeating.....repeating.....repeating......

    We know it was a Chinese spy balloon because this statement is repeated as a matter of fact again and again. We now know definitively that the 'deterioration in US/China relations was directly related to the spy balloon'.

    We also know we absolutely had to shoot it down after it passed over the continental US because it wouldn't have been newsworthy to do what we did to the amateur balloon that followed a couple of weeks later and shoot it down over the prairies. (We know the amateur balloon was what it was because the people flying it tried to tell 'officials' what it was but were soundly ignored.)

    We have a lot of very gullible people in the US -- and beyond.

    1. Strong as Taishan Mountains

      Re: Kepp repeating.....repeating.....repeating......

      Hmmm you're too rational.

      Must be a Chinese/Russian, we don't allow none of that Commie intellect propaganda here in the land of the Free.

  13. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

    Slow leak

    Might not work as intended. You can't control the rate of leak. And you can't throttle it down as the payload reaches an optimal rate of descent. Even with a small leak, the package will accelerate until you might as well just have popped it.

    You'll probably have to pop the balloon while snagging it with a grappling hook. Attached to a parachute system and tracker. Probably start with a drogue chute to keep the freefall speed manageable. And then deploy a main chute for recovery. The delivery configuration might be something with high altitude flight capability but slow. Slow enough that it could loiter around and examine the target and allow a remote operator to guide it in. But put that together with a parachute capable of handling 1500 lbs and it isn't a trivial engineering problem.

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Slow leak

      "You'll probably have to pop the balloon"

      These things aren't children's party balloons. They don't "pop", unless massively over-inflated.

  14. Noel Morgan

    shooting down the balloon with convential shells wont work

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/162084.stm

    according to this article - it has been tried in the past and with the scale of the balloons even 20mm cannon shells are unlikely to make any significant dent in the ability to float.

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: shooting down the balloon with convential shells wont work

      "even 20mm cannon shells are unlikely to make any significant dent in the ability to float."

      Depends on how many 20mm holes you manage to poke into it, no?

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