back to article It is a bird, a plane or a Chinese spy balloon? None of the above

Just when you thought the skies over America were finally free of Chinese spy balloons … well they are, at least in this latest case of a mystery object that was spotted while flying over the western US. Officials at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) observed the balloon, reportedly floating at an altitude …

  1. Blackjack Silver badge

    China insisted was an errant weather balloon

    So...did someone do the numbers to show how likely is a weather balloon to survive the trip from China to the USA?

    1. martinusher Silver badge

      Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

      The other balloon that was shot down around the same time was a hobbyist balloon that belonged to a club in Chicago. It was on its second circuit of the globe.

      Which brings to mind an interesting question. These spy balloons follow the Jet Stream and so pass over various other countries including Russia. Nobody else seems to be bothered by them.

      1. FILE_ID.DIZ

        Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

        That's because the wing-nuts in a certain circle of the US population are, well, crazy AF.

        Sure.... that Chinese balloon could have been photographing stuff... but so do satellites, every frigging day! Both private companies and government entities. The private companies being the ones I'd be most worried about, since they will sell any image to any buyer. (Think of all those fitness trackers....) Governments tend to want to horde their data.

        Sure.... that Chinese balloon could have been intercepting RF signals.... but so do a lot of other things, every frigging day! I mean, back in the day of satellite communications, crafty spies would setup shop "behind" the transceiver and listen to the RF beam's wide spread on the ground.

        I'm quite positive that sensitive USG properties have thought of all the ways information can be leaked/gathered/etc. In fact, I'm sure they do it every day against other entities every day. I would think (hope) that anyway we can acquire intelligence, someone considers if we ourselves are also sensitive to that same method of leakage.

        At least that's what a reasonable person should consider... and I do believe that those in charge of sensitive sites think of these things.Except in cases of a novel data leaks, such as the aforementioned fitness trackers. That's a solved problem now.

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

          that Chinese balloon could have been photographing stuff... but so do satellites, every frigging day

          Satellites are hundreds of miles up, versus the ~15 miles that balloon was so it would be able to get better pictures/video and intercept weaker RF signals. The US also knows the orbits of Chinese (and Russian) spy satellites so if they wanted to hide something sensitive they could do it when those satellites were known to not be overhead. Yes spy satellites can adjust their orbits but as they are constantly tracked the US will be aware of any chance in their orbits, and they can only move so fast without prematurely expending their fuel.

          The balloons were apparently not noticed or mostly ignored, at least until it became a big issue and congress demanded the DOD "do something" and probably invested many millions in technology to insure they weren't missing any overflying balloons (several Chinese balloons were later known to have overflown the US in the late 2010s without making the news at the time or being reported to congress, and the fear was that others were overflying without anyone being aware)

          Whether it deserved the hysteria it did is another matter, but to say it can't get anything that satellites could is clearly wrong.

          1. FILE_ID.DIZ

            Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

            Given that private satellites are able to capture 30 centimeters per pixel from space (https://www.geowgs84.com/post/what-is-the-highest-resolution-satellite-imagery-available), I'm highly confident a lower altitude isn't going to bring in unknowable details that are otherwise lost.

            You can make out quite a lot with that resolution.

            That same article makes an unverified claim that some governments may have low single-digit centimeter per pixel resolutions already. You can read a license plate if that resolution does exist. If that statement about resolution is true, I'm sure China would be one of those countries with such technology.

            1. MachDiamond Silver badge

              Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

              "That same article makes an unverified claim that some governments may have low single-digit centimeter per pixel resolutions already. "

              Any photographer knows that the more atmosphere you are trying to see through, the bigger a thing has to be to see it clearly. This is why I chuckle at the conspiracy theorists that make claims that the gubbamint can read license plates from space. On a hot day, you can't read them from a few hundred meters due to the heat shimmer coming off the road.

              1. FILE_ID.DIZ
                Thumb Down

                Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

                Well, if I'm looking at something from 10 miles away "horizontally", then yes, all the heat between my camera and the object are at play.

                But, if I'm on top of you, 10 miles away, then any "heat shimmer" effect is drastically decreased, given any localized heat shimmers are, well, local.

                I mean, any modern satellite (read Google Earth) image showing the color and details of a car or window of a high-rise blow through your heat shimmer theory.

                1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge
                  Holmes

                  Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

                  Plus, it doesn't take much image stacking to eliminate that effect.

                  1. Julz

                    Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

                    And/or adaptive optics.

                2. Big_Boomer Silver badge

                  Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

                  "I mean, any modern satellite (read Google Earth) image showing the color and details of a car or window of a high-rise blow through your heat shimmer theory."

                  I suggest you research into how Google Maps/Earth imaging is done. Most of the images you see when zoomed in are from mapping aircraft flying at lower (below 15,000ft) altitudes. Google Maps/Earth just stiches them together cleverly. Atmospheric distortion is enough of an issue that Astronomical telescopes spend many millions every year on systems to try to correct the effect of the distortion.

        2. Enormous Crowe Turd

          Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

          Sure, satellites take phots every day, but their positions are well understood, so the powers that be on the ground know when to hide their stuff. Thats why the U2 was built (expensive) thats why spy baloons were built (cheap)

    2. Version 1.0 Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

      Or did someone in the NSA just pull their phone out of their pocket and check TikTok for a video of the balloon and it's function?

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

      Lookup Japanese Fu-Go bombs. It's not extremely advanced tech if you want to send balloons over the ocean.

      Key word being "want". I'm pretty sure that the typical weather balloons used in the US are designed to come down fairly quickly.

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: China insisted was an errant weather balloon

        "I'm pretty sure that the typical weather balloons used in the US are designed to come down fairly quickly."

        There is software that lets you calculate how much H2 or He to put in a balloon with a given mass carrying a payload of a given mass to either have it top out at a high altitude and cruise or make a trip up until it goes bang whereupon a parachute is deployed and the payload drifts back down to the ground. The last one I worked on some years ago did a fast trip up to about 48,000' and traveled about 80 miles downrange. I can't remember what our calcs were for but I think it was pretty close.

  2. SnailFerrous
    Mushroom

    No surrender in the War on Balloons(tm)!

    Their reliability in reaching all parts of the globe make them an obvious and cheaper replacement for the minimally reliable Trident missiles in the completely and totally independent British nuclear deterrent.

    1. IGotOut Silver badge

      Errr you do know that Trident are manufactured in the US and also used by the US Navy?

      1. Jan 0 Silver badge

        @IGotOut

        Errm, have you had a sarcasm bypass fitted?

      2. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        @IGotOut

        More than that, the UK trident missiles are leased from the US (obviously with some high final payment to terminate the lease!), and have to be periodically shipped to the US for maintenance.

        The warheads are UK manufactured at AWE Aldermaston, and married to the missiles in the UK at HMNB Clyde in Faslane I believe.

  3. Lurko

    Officials had no idea what the balloon was carrying, but concluded it wasn't a threat.

    Words here are really superfluous.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don't they have big telescopes?

    I'm not an expert on how telescopes work, but if they've got reasonably portable ground-based telescopes that can see other planets, can't they just set up the best one going for checking out a balloon and then they don't have to launch a fighter jet just to get a closer look?

    Also, set up an email address for balloon hobbyists to say "hey here's my project and this is the frequency it's transmitting on", I'm sure they'd be more than happy to send stuff to Norad for the local bragging rights....

    1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: Don't they have big telescopes?

      Because the enemies of the USA couldn't possibly write an email claiming that their balloon is innocuous???

    2. Enormous Crowe Turd

      Re: Don't they have big telescopes?

      Why don't the Chinese just use really big telescopes to spy on the US, what with the earth being flat and all, its all sea between the two land masses centered on the South Pole?

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: Don't they have big telescopes?

        Why don't the Chinese just use really big telescopes to spy on the US

        Because the sea between them is very big.

        They'd need to park a ship, halfway across the sea, with a really big mirror on top of a really big pole. And the Americans might spot that. So its easier to use balloons.

      2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Don't they have big telescopes?

        Because the Earth is hollow, not flat, and we live on the inside. They can't use telescopes because the "sky" is actually an opaque sphere within the hollow Earth.

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
          Happy

          Re: Don't they have big telescopes?

          Michael Wojcik,

          That can't be right! I know the Earth is hollow, but we live on the outside. The hollow inside is full of Nazis.

          Come on! This is basic stuff you learn at school.

  5. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    NORAD

    We asked NORAD to confirm, but haven't heard back.

    That's the same organisation that perpetuates the Santa myth and claims to track the bearded fellow

    https://www.norad.mil/NORAD-Tracks-Santa//

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