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posted by takyon on Saturday February 04 2023, @10:48PM   Printer-friendly
from the pop! dept.

China balloon: US shoots down airship over Atlantic

The US has shot down a giant Chinese balloon that it says has been spying on key military sites across America.

The Department of Defense confirmed its fighter jets brought down the balloon over US territorial waters.

Three airports were shut and airspace was closed off the coast of North and South Carolina as the military carried out the operation on Saturday.

Footage on US TV networks showed the balloon falling to the sea after a small explosion.

An F-22 jet fighter engaged the high-altitude balloon with one missile - an AIM-9X Sidewinder - and it went down about six nautical miles off the US coast at 14:39 EST (19:39 GMT), a defence official told reporters.

US President Joe Biden had been under pressure to shoot the balloon down since defence officials first announced they were tracking it on Thursday.

Second balloon spotted over Latin America:

On Friday, the Pentagon said a second Chinese spy balloon had been spotted - this time over Latin America with reported sightings over Costa Rica and Venezuela.

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  • (Score: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 04 2023, @11:15PM (4 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 04 2023, @11:15PM (#1290307)

    It got to float around for days and collect all kinds of data, which it already sent back home. Not that i live in the states and want to boss you around, you do you.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 05 2023, @12:31AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 05 2023, @12:31AM (#1290313)

      you do you.

      I would, but Joe Robinette does Joe Robinette instead.

    • (Score: 3, Funny) by khallow on Sunday February 05 2023, @02:03AM (2 children)

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Sunday February 05 2023, @02:03AM (#1290320) Journal
      Now it knows the secret frequency of my mental failwaves and Chinese society will start failing just like everyone else who has been exposed. You're welcome!
      • (Score: 2) by srobert on Sunday February 05 2023, @04:31PM (1 child)

        by srobert (4803) on Sunday February 05 2023, @04:31PM (#1290368)

        Wasn't that done on Star Trek when they put an infected Hugh back into the Borg?

        • (Score: 2) by DannyB on Monday February 06 2023, @08:04PM

          by DannyB (5839) on Monday February 06 2023, @08:04PM (#1290509) Journal

          If I recall correctfully, they did not do that. They squandered the opportunity. Their morals got the better of them. Better to allow the destruction of the human race, along with other obviously inferior races (klingon, romulan, ferengi, cardassian, bajoran, etc), than to commit genocide against a genocidal invader.

          However, in some sense, Hugh was "infected" from his exposure to humans and temporary isolation from The Borg.

          --
          NSA does only TARGETED surveillance. It's just that they target everyone.
  • (Score: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 04 2023, @11:17PM (12 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 04 2023, @11:17PM (#1290308)

    Wiki says they cost anywhere from $200k to $400k each, and it also tells me the F-22 has a 20mm cannon. Is it really that hard to shred the balloon with bullets? Serious question. Did we play ourselves even more than we have already? Really. If this thing was tracked as long as they claim, why wasn't it downed over some remote part of Alaska, or in the northern Pacific Ocean as it *approached* US territory?

    • (Score: 3, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 04 2023, @11:29PM (1 child)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 04 2023, @11:29PM (#1290310)

      Jets can't fly high enough for the guns to be effective. If these balloons are made like they make high altitude scientific balloons, bullets aren't any good anyway [irishtimes.com] (that balloon was vented down to a much lower altitude where the jets could shoot their guns). They would poke a bunch of holes that would vent the gas over time.

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by RamiK on Saturday February 04 2023, @11:57PM (1 child)

      by RamiK (1813) on Saturday February 04 2023, @11:57PM (#1290312)

      It's likely just putting the F-22 in the air was a loss:

      The F-22 costs an estimated $68,322 per hour to operate.

      ( https://executiveflyers.com/how-much-does-an-f22-raptor-cost/ [executiveflyers.com] )

      I'm not sure how long it will take to China to get a clue... But I've prepared the theme music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiwgOWo7mDc [youtube.com]

      --
      compiling...
      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 06 2023, @03:42AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 06 2023, @03:42AM (#1290426)

        Yeah but those are tax dollars, they don't count. Helicopter loads of cash more that $10B "went missing" in Iraq. Pittance compared to the $3-4T budget, which itself is pittance compared to what we hand out to banks and businesses when, ahem...wait... ok, "the economy is bad".

    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by driverless on Sunday February 05 2023, @05:50AM (5 children)

      by driverless (4770) on Sunday February 05 2023, @05:50AM (#1290338)

      The whole story is pretty fishy. There are special carveouts in aviation law for balloons because they can't be steered, so how did this one magically fly over lots of sensitive US military facilities? And given that you could see it from the ground and pretty much the whole world was being informed about its progress it's got to be the least effective spying tool ever. If it was really packed full of Top Sikrit commie spying gear would they really float it straight into the hands of US analysts?

      I'd really love to know what really happened here, rather than the random speculation and fancy Tora Bora tunnel kingdom-style diagrams where people get to invent whatever magic capabilities they feel like.

      • (Score: 5, Interesting) by toddestan on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:56AM (2 children)

        by toddestan (4982) on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:56AM (#1290344)

        Balloons can't be steered directly, but you can control where they go to some extent by changing altitude and catching wind streams moving in different directions. If that good enough to take it on a tour of a bunch of sensitive US military facilities, that I don't know.

        If you ask me, it was more of a test by China to see how and if the US reacted.

        • (Score: 5, Funny) by driverless on Sunday February 05 2023, @08:15AM

          by driverless (4770) on Sunday February 05 2023, @08:15AM (#1290346)

          I reckon it was an attempt by Aliexpress to compete with Amazon's drone delivery system. I bet when they pick up the pieces it'll be a consignment of fish pillows, 10,000mAh 18650s, toilet seat night lights, and fake poo.

        • (Score: 2) by mcgrew on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:16PM

          by mcgrew (701) <publish@mcgrewbooks.com> on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:16PM (#1290387) Homepage Journal

          The government fellow on the news this morning said it had four fans to steer it.

          --
          mcgrewbooks.com mcgrew.info nooze.org
      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by DeathMonkey on Monday February 06 2023, @04:52PM (1 child)

        by DeathMonkey (1380) on Monday February 06 2023, @04:52PM (#1290479) Journal
        • (Score: 2) by driverless on Tuesday February 07 2023, @03:15AM

          by driverless (4770) on Tuesday February 07 2023, @03:15AM (#1290554)

          I'm still puzzled by the whole thing. The entire world knew about it so it's the least secret spying mission ever. China knew it was effectively handing everything in/on/under the balloon to the US government for analysis so they'd had to have used decades-old non-sensitive tech in it, meaning they'd get very low-grade whatever it was they were after. The thing moves about half as fast as a heavily sedated sloth and is clearly visible so people would have hours of advance notice to throw a tarp over anything they didn't want the balloon to see, beyond the things that you could see anyway on Google Earth. And it's at best marginally maneuverable, you can nudge a balloon in a certain direction provided there's little to no wind but not much beyond that.

          And from the US side, they didn't shoot it down for so long because they were afraid it might land on something? To a first-order approximation a lot of the US between a strip down the east and west coasts is empty, there's thousands of square miles over which they could have shot it down without hitting someone. Shit, a friend of mine said they could even use his farm for it (South Dakota), unless they happen by a million-to-one chance to hit his house or barn there's nothing on there except scattered cows, and that's not even counting the vast tracts of absolute nothing in places like Nevada. Drove down one of the lesser-used roads that comes out near Tonopah some years ago and for the entire three-hour drive we didn't see one single living thing, and that was somewhere that actually had a road through it.

    • (Score: 2) by Beryllium Sphere (r) on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:19PM

      by Beryllium Sphere (r) (5062) on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:19PM (#1290389)

      I don't know enough about cannons to answer but the shells would have had to climb quite a distance:
      "The F-22 fired the Sidewinder at the balloon from an altitude of 58,000 feet. The balloon at the time was between 60,000 and 65,000 feet.", defense.gov.

    • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Sunday February 12 2023, @01:11AM

      by Reziac (2489) on Sunday February 12 2023, @01:11AM (#1291330) Homepage

      Well, they've since downed another over Alaska, and there's reportedly another one since then.

      China doing everything to excess, I expect there are dozens.

      --
      And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
  • (Score: 5, Funny) by its_gonna_be_yuge! on Saturday February 04 2023, @11:53PM (2 children)

    by its_gonna_be_yuge! (6454) on Saturday February 04 2023, @11:53PM (#1290311)

    This was a whether balloon. To see whether the US would react.

    • (Score: 3, Funny) by Opportunist on Sunday February 05 2023, @01:48AM (1 child)

      by Opportunist (5545) on Sunday February 05 2023, @01:48AM (#1290317)

      So, you would say it was a test balloon?

      • (Score: 4, Touché) by istartedi on Sunday February 05 2023, @03:24AM

        by istartedi (123) on Sunday February 05 2023, @03:24AM (#1290329) Journal

        I think maybe you mean it was a trial balloon.

        --
        Appended to the end of comments you post. Max: 120 chars.
  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by GloomMower on Sunday February 05 2023, @01:28AM (19 children)

    by GloomMower (17961) on Sunday February 05 2023, @01:28AM (#1290316)

    What can a high altitude balloon do better than a satellite? Maybe it is a little closer to ground, but it's payload would have to be lighter right?

    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Opportunist on Sunday February 05 2023, @01:50AM (6 children)

      by Opportunist (5545) on Sunday February 05 2023, @01:50AM (#1290318)

      Well, for one it's cheaper. And you can test your enemy's reaction to it.

      • (Score: 3, Touché) by mcgrew on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:21PM (5 children)

        by mcgrew (701) <publish@mcgrewbooks.com> on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:21PM (#1290390) Homepage Journal

        The satellite's already paid for. That's like saying taking the train from here to St Louis is cheaper than driving your car ($60 ticket, $20 gas) because you had to buy the car. Not very logical logic there.

        --
        mcgrewbooks.com mcgrew.info nooze.org
        • (Score: 2) by Opportunist on Tuesday February 07 2023, @02:30PM (4 children)

          by Opportunist (5545) on Tuesday February 07 2023, @02:30PM (#1290607)

          If that sat is already in an orbit, yes. But last I checked those things don't just pop into existence somewhere up there, you still have to get them there and they still have to be there at the right time, depending on the orbit they're in, they just might not be able to see what you're trying to look at.

          Every halfway important nation that has something to hide from spy sats knows exactly when the sats of their enemies are above and do their shady business when these sats are not here. IIRC the US did exactly that when developing the stealth bombers.

          • (Score: 2) by mcgrew on Thursday February 09 2023, @03:40PM (3 children)

            by mcgrew (701) <publish@mcgrewbooks.com> on Thursday February 09 2023, @03:40PM (#1290902) Homepage Journal

            The government knows if China had a satellite over us when the balloon was here, but you'll not know. It's classified. I'd be surprised if Russia and China don't both have satellites permanently over us, parked in a geosynchronous orbit. Those satellites can read the date on a dime, from orbit, through walls. They're Hubbles turned away from space and towards Earth. I suspect that the focus problem they had when they sent Hubble up was they simply sent a spy satellite pointed to the stars; it was, after all, nearsighted before they repaired it.

            I'm bemused at the media's screaming about Biden's transparency when they didn't find out about the classified documents in his house. The dumbasses, you simply are NOT supposed to be transparent about anything classified! They didn't want the Russians and Chinese knowing that we have people taking classified documents home.

            They're not allowed to tell you this, but I'm a civilian now and my 1st amendment rights say it's perfectly legal to tell you my hunches, although there is some fifty year old stuff I know about that's still classified and I' won't discuss it.

            --
            mcgrewbooks.com mcgrew.info nooze.org
            • (Score: 2) by Opportunist on Thursday February 09 2023, @11:09PM (2 children)

              by Opportunist (5545) on Thursday February 09 2023, @11:09PM (#1290989)

              Well, no.

              Geosync orbit is FAR away. For comparison, the ISS orbits at about 350km, geosync is at about 36,000km. It's also not as simple as "pointing Hubble inwards".

              Most of all, though, a geostationary orbit, i.e. what you want for such a case, can only be achieved above the equator. Otherwise you're again dealing with the problem that your sat will only be "on target" for half the time during an orbit, which is in the case of a geosynchronous orbit also a day. It will always be on target at exactly the same time every day. The rest of the time it will be moving to or away from your target. If you tried to take clear pictures of something in, say, Montana, you'll spend twice as much time taking pictures of Baja California, and about as much time taking pictures of R'lyeh.

              • (Score: 2) by mcgrew on Saturday February 11 2023, @03:20PM (1 child)

                by mcgrew (701) <publish@mcgrewbooks.com> on Saturday February 11 2023, @03:20PM (#1291268) Homepage Journal

                Geosync orbit is FAR away.

                Yes, it is, and they can still read the date on a dime through a roof. I saw stuff half a century ago in the USAF that nobody still knows except government entities like military people. REALLY hard to imagine what they have now. That satellite dish in your neighbor's yard is fed from a geosynchronous satellite. Spy satellites aren't limited to visible light any more than astronomy telescopes are. They're not limited by much at all, in fact.

                --
                mcgrewbooks.com mcgrew.info nooze.org
                • (Score: 2) by Opportunist on Sunday February 12 2023, @10:29AM

                  by Opportunist (5545) on Sunday February 12 2023, @10:29AM (#1291390)

                  They are also not magical boxes that can ignore physics. There is another reason Hubble is up there instead of being a powerful instrument down here on earth: Distortion from the atmosphere. That pesky crap that would make astronomy so much easier if it wasn't there (ok, we'd have a hard time breathing, but some sacrifices have to be made for science).

                  That stuff not only keeps us from looking out with impunity, it also keeps us from doing the opposite. Which gets me to yes, there are other wavelengths than visual light, but quite a few of them are not only distorted but simply obscured by the atmosphere of our planet, making "looking down" in various wavelenghts really annoyingly difficult.

                  Some of them, though, only matter either when you have the whole atmosphere "against" you, or only certain layers of it actually block your view.

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Tork on Sunday February 05 2023, @02:07AM (2 children)

      by Tork (3914) on Sunday February 05 2023, @02:07AM (#1290321)
      When I first heard about it I thought they might be 'war driving' to find exploitable wifi routers, but then I found out what altitude they were running at and dismissed that theory. I also wondered if maybe it was dropping off lil spy drones over the sensitive areas.

      Or maybe they want to know if we're repositioning nukes. I dunno, all I can do is make up possibilities. I will say it's strange no matter which way you slice it because they obviously didn't care that they were caught doing it.
      --
      🏳️‍🌈 Proud Ally 🏳️‍🌈
      • (Score: 4, Interesting) by quietus on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:45AM

        by quietus (6328) on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:45AM (#1290342) Journal

        They might have been war driving (flying?).

        I remembered reading that a form of military communications used HF signals bouncing off from the stratosphere.

        Upon check, it turns out that the US military was seeking a modernization of so-called troposcatter communications [militaryaerospace.com] in 2013, for fixed-site and on-the-move long-range military communications as an alternative to satellite communications (SATCOM). The troposphere is the layer immediately under the stratosphere, and the tropopause the boundary layer between those two; and coincidentally also the range where this balloon was floating.

        In 2021 the US Army started introducing new communication technologies (the Tactical Integration Network), in 2 year capability sets. While the first stage was focused on 'dismounted combat manoeuvres'. The current set of testing (Capability Set 23 [janes.com]) is [officially] focusing on communication among Stryker [wikipedia.org] combat vehicles, according to Jane's Defense.

      • (Score: 2) by quietus on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:49AM

        by quietus (6328) on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:49AM (#1290343) Journal

        On the other hand, it might be that the Chinese military is experimenting with its own military version of Project Loon [idstch.com], and something went wrong.

    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Reziac on Sunday February 05 2023, @02:51AM (4 children)

      by Reziac (2489) on Sunday February 05 2023, @02:51AM (#1290325) Homepage

      Someone pointed out that it could be used to scatter pathogens.

      Unlikely, but not out of the realm of possible.

      --
      And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
      • (Score: 5, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 05 2023, @03:02AM (1 child)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 05 2023, @03:02AM (#1290326)

        > used to scatter pathogens.

        Waste of money to do that by balloon. International airline travel does this for free, focuses on the big hub cities where there are masses of people.

        • (Score: 2, Insightful) by Reziac on Sunday February 05 2023, @04:15AM

          by Reziac (2489) on Sunday February 05 2023, @04:15AM (#1290332) Homepage

          Agreed, but doesn't preclude experiments with a balloon.

          --
          And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
      • (Score: 2) by Tork on Sunday February 05 2023, @03:08AM (1 child)

        by Tork (3914) on Sunday February 05 2023, @03:08AM (#1290327)
        One potential problem with that theory is the whole world knows who did it. (that said there is a big missing ingredient here, who knows what it is.)
        --
        🏳️‍🌈 Proud Ally 🏳️‍🌈
        • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Sunday February 05 2023, @04:20AM

          by Reziac (2489) on Sunday February 05 2023, @04:20AM (#1290334) Homepage

          There may even be a missing second balloon. Initial report was there were two, and last night one passed over Billings MT (confirmed, and Malmstrom AFB scrambled jets) ... and about sunset, something blew up at high altitude over Billings. Meanwhile today (WAY too soon to be the same one) we see this balloon being taken down off SC.

          The missing ingredient may be spelled "Nyah nyah, got away with it."

          --
          And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
    • (Score: 2, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 05 2023, @01:44PM (2 children)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 05 2023, @01:44PM (#1290356)

      There's plenty of signal intelligence that can only be captured below the ionosphere. That's why so-called "fishing trawlers" are used. But they can't reach the central United States. Satellites aren't necessarily better, it's just that there's a convention that countries don't shoot down each other's spy satellites.

      There's also the fact that this balloon was presumably "painted" by military RADAR all across the U.S., providing the Chinese with precise coordinates, frequencies used, potential holes in the RADAR coverage, etc. No satellite could get such information.

      No sane country would allow a potential enemy to fly sigint equipment over their most sensitive military assets, but we just did.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 06 2023, @03:50AM (1 child)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 06 2023, @03:50AM (#1290427)

        If only they had AC's insight to call on they wouldn't have been caught flat footed.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 06 2023, @04:19AM

          by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 06 2023, @04:19AM (#1290431)

          Incompetence? In my US government? No way!

    • (Score: 2) by mcgrew on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:18PM

      by mcgrew (701) <publish@mcgrewbooks.com> on Sunday February 05 2023, @07:18PM (#1290388) Homepage Journal

      Propaganda. "See, those pussies just let us fly around over their top secret facilities! Their greatness is gone!"

      --
      mcgrewbooks.com mcgrew.info nooze.org
  • (Score: 3, Informative) by khallow on Sunday February 05 2023, @04:19AM (10 children)

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Sunday February 05 2023, @04:19AM (#1290333) Journal
    As this AC noted [soylentnews.org], it's extremely hard to shoot down a balloon in a short period of time. Using a Stinger missile has its own serious problems. First, the balloon doesn't have a significant signal in either infra-red or radar. Second, the operational altitude for this balloon (note this balloon may have been at a substantially lower altitude) makes it hard for missiles to reach that high, especially ones with relatively short range like Stingers.

    So taking out a balloon with a Stinger missile is a statement of US military capabilities. And that might be a large part of the reason that they bothered to shoot down the balloon. I noticed they shot it down in early afternoon (it hit water at 2:39pm EST and fell near shore. That indicates that they didn't have to keep trying to shoot it down (as the Canadians did in the AC's linked story) and it went down quickly once they hit it. The time of day might be advantageous to the use of the Stinger since the balloon would still be near optimal solar heating and thus as bright as it'll get as a thermal target. So the shot might have been performed in a narrow window of opportunity.

    As to what the balloon might be, I don't know. But if they can keep it in the air long enough (several weeks which isn't that hard), it will eventually return to the same side of the world as China and they would be able to do a controlled descent - also not hard.

    For example, I used to work as a volunteer with an aerospace non-profit group, JP Aerospace [jpaerospace.com]. They routinely ran high altitude unmanned latex balloon flights to 80-110k feet (24 km to 34 km altitude) that lasted several hours. We actually had to precautions to prevent the balloon from staying in the air indefinitely - this consisted of two overlapping schemes. First, cutting the balloon loose from the cable and allowing the payload to fall back to Earth. The second is that the balloon was actually overinflated and would pop on its own when the latex stretched too much. The usual failure mode was premature popping of the balloon from latex with weak spots.

    Under our approach, we could launch a balloon every half hour or so with a crew of maybe five or six people - just keep the helium, balloons, and payloads coming, though I think we only did that a couple of times for exotic mission schemes.

    So it's easy to put a balloon up there that stays up for a while. But latex (which this Chinese balloon appears to be made of both from appearance and how it popped) leaks helium easily. So it drifts lower as time goes on. It'll keep floating, but eventually it'll be in air traffic lanes rather than kilometers above said traffic lanes. There are a couple of approaches to preventing that from happening. The first is to build the balloon of a less leaky latex. The second is putting a store of helium on board and slowly pumping it into the balloon to make up for leakage. Each adds weight to the balloon and takes away from the payload it can carry. Here, if the Chinese balloon really is carrying espionage/surveillance equipment, then it may already be carrying liquid helium for instruments. In that case, it'll have excess helium available without a lot of extra mass.
    • (Score: 1, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 05 2023, @05:40AM (1 child)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 05 2023, @05:40AM (#1290337)
      I think you meant a sidewinder missile. A stinger is a shoulder launched anti-aircraft missile with a max range of 15,000 ft (3 miles).
      • (Score: 1) by khallow on Sunday February 05 2023, @06:20AM

        by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Sunday February 05 2023, @06:20AM (#1290340) Journal
        Sorry.I even googled the missile type to see if there was something exotic about the "9X" and completely missed that it had a different name than what was in my head.
    • (Score: 2) by ElizabethGreene on Monday February 06 2023, @02:47AM (7 children)

      by ElizabethGreene (6748) on Monday February 06 2023, @02:47AM (#1290419) Journal

      There are a couple of approaches to preventing that [the balloon losing altitude and drifting into flight lanes] from happening. The first is to build the balloon of a less leaky latex. The second is putting a store of helium on board and slowly pumping it into the balloon

      A third method is to discard ballast, E.g. have a reservoir of a very low freezing point liquid (isopropyl alcohol) and a control for the ECU to dump it to maintain altitude. I built and tether-tested kit for this back when I played with the idea of attempting a transatlantic autonomous balloon flight. The guts of it are still sitting on a shelf in my closet. Iridium IOT comms modules are cheap now; I should pick that back up. Hmm.

      Any soylentils interested in helping me navigate the EU's airspace regulations for a project like this? Launching from Tennessee the highest probability is it'll crash before it even reaches the Atlantic, but prudence dictates I have to plan for the unlikely chance of success.

      • (Score: 1) by khallow on Monday February 06 2023, @05:42AM (6 children)

        by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday February 06 2023, @05:42AM (#1290433) Journal
        I can't do a thing about EU regulations (working out of northwestern Wyoming) and my electronics skills are weak, but I do have considerable experience launching high altitude latex balloons FWIW: specialized tools my team used, fill and launch procedures, and safety issues at all stages of the fill and launch.

        This sounds like an interesting project idea. Can't say that I can assist directly on site with launches, but I'm game for offering free planning and remote assistance on the above issues should you need it.
        • (Score: 2) by ElizabethGreene on Monday February 06 2023, @03:55PM (5 children)

          by ElizabethGreene (6748) on Monday February 06 2023, @03:55PM (#1290473) Journal

          Q: Do you have any ideas on how to force the balloon envelope to fail? I fit it with an overpressure relief to maximize range, but that means I can't trust it to pop from overexpansion at the end of the flight. I'm able to cut away the flight package, but that still leaves the balloon floating about for however long it takes the helium to diffuse. That's not ideal.

          I tried a nichrome wire loop, but the package spins on the tether and rips it off.

          • (Score: 1) by khallow on Monday February 06 2023, @06:57PM (4 children)

            by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday February 06 2023, @06:57PM (#1290495) Journal

            Do you have any ideas on how to force the balloon envelope to fail?

            Depends on the balloon type. With latex you can just cut the connection between balloon and payload. The balloon will rise up to the point where it pops and then come down as a loose blob of biodegradable latex. As long as there isn't a lot of weight still attached to the balloon at this point, I think it will fall softly.

            With a Mylar or polyethylene zero pressure balloon (basically a bag of helium with an opening on the bottom to keep the bag at the same pressure as the outside, hence "zero pressure") you will need something that ruptures the balloon envelope over a long slice like a long strip of pyrotechnics or heat wire. I don't have experience with that, but there are a few problems: it can trigger prematurely either in storage, on the ground, early on in flight, or even after the balloon part lands again; it needs to work in vacuum (at 80-100k feet it's technically a near vacuum, but you don't have enough air to act as an oxidizer) and with significant temperature extremes (I don't recall the temperature ranges, but you pass through a very cold section around 60k feet and at 100k feet, sunlight portions get pretty hot); and these plastics normally are transparent tot both light and radio waves - if your balloon ever drifts into air traffic altitudes you'll want some way for planes and radar to see it.

            Going with latex balloons, the type I'm much more familiar with, you have two conflicting parts to your mission profile. You want to get up to 80-100k feet. But you want to stop at that point. Both latex and zero pressure have the characteristic that they keep rising at the same rate until you get near their limits (latex can't stretch more and zero pressure leaks helium out the bottom). As I understand it, a lot of duration flights rely on this limiting behavior as the brake to keep the balloon in place, but it requires careful calculation and reliable bags (often with very particular and costly characteristics like very inelastic near limit). Alternately, they vent helium as they get near the desired altitude. Zero pressure is trickier here because it has to vent helium from the top. Latex balloons can vent from the balloon mouth though it is slow.

            I'll note here that there's good reason to have a fast rise at the start. You need to punch through a cold layer at about 30-70k feet. Latex can freeze and shatter in this zone (though I think it depends on whether the balloon changes shape in this zone) so when you're rising with latex you want to spend as little time in this zone as possible. Similarly, 0-40k? is air traffic zone. Again as little time as you can in this zone. In other words, you want to pop up to 70k feet or higher as soon as you reasonably can. The people I worked with aimed for about 1000 feet per minute rise (that worked most of the time though we did get the occasional shatter at higher altitudes - possibly a balloon quality issue). They didn't worry about the balloon staying up, missions rarely were longer than two hours.

            I fit it with an overpressure relief to maximize range, but that means I can't trust it to pop from overexpansion at the end of the flight.

            Also, this is why I don't worry in this scenario about latex balloons sticking around once they're cut loose. They weren't rising slowly with the mass of a payload connected to them, and when that's cut loose, they rise quickly to a pop altitude and cease to be a problem. If you go with a venting system, you might be able to put the balloon in a mode where it's barely buoyant and result in an indefinite balloon flight.

            A plan C that might work better with limited resources is to use two equal sized balloons so that you have the fast rise time at the beginning (the time we did this, the balloons rose separately from each other so there was no damaging bumping). Then release one balloon (which will quickly pop) so that you're floating or a touch heavy with the second. My feel is that you'll probably rise faster in the beginning than the above 1000 feet per minute target due to all that balloon, but not much faster. That quickly gets you to the desired altitude while spending as little time as you can in the problem zones. If your remaining balloon doesn't pop at the stop altitude (for example, because it continues to rise), then you'll probably be good for a while until you run out of ballast.

            I haven't found the launch in question I refer to above, but here's a similar one [jpaerospace.com] (Tandem High Altitude Airship) that launched in 2011. I assisted with balloon fill on this launch which required two teams working in tandem and used a similar layout.

            I tried a nichrome wire loop, but the package spins on the tether and rips it off.

            As to the cutting mechanism, we used both pyrotechnics and nichrome. The latter was wrapped around the cord tightly about a dozen times and very reliable (for example, used in the 2011 Tandem launch above to cut both balloons). We stopped using pyros a few years after I started volunteering.

            • (Score: 2) by ElizabethGreene on Monday February 06 2023, @08:56PM (3 children)

              by ElizabethGreene (6748) on Monday February 06 2023, @08:56PM (#1290513) Journal

              The tandem airship looks super cool. I wonder how fast they have to spin the props to get a bite of anything up that high.

              Your suggestion of pyrotechnics got me thinking and I may have a solution. With a small redesign I should be able to incorporate a mechanical pyrotechnic self-destruct in the overpressure vent when the payload cuts away. I'd previously only considered electrical solutions. Gracias.

              Do you know of any 101 primer on balloon launch safety? I made assumptions and don't know what I don't know in this space. The obvious concerns I see are entanglement, losing the envelope on ground contact, premature release before complete filling, and the normal hazards of transporting and using compressed gas cylinders. Are there other big gotchas? For scale, my payload fits within the FAA regulation for a weather balloon (12 pounds max, 6 pounds per package, 3oz/in^2 surface loading). It's a lot smaller than the tandems.

              • (Score: 1) by khallow on Tuesday February 07 2023, @03:02AM

                by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday February 07 2023, @03:02AM (#1290552) Journal
                I'll ask around. I sent an email to JP, the founder of JP Aerospace. If he's too busy, I'll see if I can contact some members of the team.

                The obvious concerns I see are entanglement, losing the envelope on ground contact, premature release before complete filling, and the normal hazards of transporting and using compressed gas cylinders. Are there other big gotchas?

                That's pretty comprehensive though I saw a few missing spots. For the edification of people reading this thread, I'll explain why these things are problems.

                The gas cylinders are the most dangerous thing on the field. They're heavy (~80 pounds or 35 kg) and can cause physical injury from rolling/falling or poor lifting technique. Unlike almost everything else, they can cause problems during transport too, including rolling around during transport - imagine a few cylinders rolling through the side of your vehicle onto the road or you losing control of the vehicle due to all this sliding weight in the rear. Knocking the end off one turns it into an impromptu, lethal rocket capable of easily punching through vehicles and buildings and traveling hundreds of yards/meters. The extremely high pressure can damage equipment hooked up to it (pressure regulators required) and cause frostbite (I always wore insulated gloves while handling gas cylinders and the hoses during fill and sometimes we would freeze metering equipment if we ran the gas too fast).

                If you ever inflate a balloon in an enclosed area, you need both ventilation and an observer with better air supply to make sure the balloon filler doesn't lose consciousness. Helium has killed people before. It's generally safer to handle than say, pure nitrogen or carbon dioxide, because it rises so aggressively - just stay low to the ground. This is why it took three people to fill a balloon with our setup. One person outside managed the tanks and the gas meter (we had a natural gas meter that didn't have actual numbers, we used a click counter every time the meter's needle did a full revolution). The second person was the balloon whisperer who filled the balloon and also positioned the balloon inside a tent we had set up. And the third person held open the tent opening for ventilation and observed the balloon whisperer.

                Nothing else will cause this variety of hazards during so many stages of the mission.

                Your isopropyl alcohol storage would be a safety risk specific to your project, especially since it's intended to be released under certain circumstances, and could create fire, explosive, and ventilation hazards if it leaks while in an enclosed space (though it's relatively safe as far as such substances go and easy to control).

                So is pyrotechnics. It's a significant fire hazard. We would store such in its own, clearly marked tool box.

                The "losing the envelope on ground contact" is actually part of a huge problem. No matter what bag choice you use for the balloon, it is flimsy and you can puncture/cut the bag/envelope on contact with anything that is hard, pointed, or even sticky. In my group, we called these things "sharps". In a strict safety sense, sharps are any object that can cause cuts or punctures on the human body like blades, needles, glass shards, even the edge of paper under certain circumstances. But as you can imagine, a balloon is vastly easier to cut and puncture than the human body.

                So the variety of things that can be considered sharps are much, much broader. For example, when we filled up a balloon, we would stick it in the above-mentioned specialized tent which happened to have a top strip held on with velcro. There were so many sharps in this environment: the velcro has to be covered up especially the edge of the velcro and the stiffer side of the velcro. Also for weighing down the edges of the tent, we used zip lock bags filled with beans - seriously, because there were no sharp edges or dense objects in beans. Merely handling the balloon surface with work gloves counts. When they wanted to move the balloon around in the bag, they would move a blanket positioned under and touching the balloon rather than touch the bag directly. The sticky side of tape is a sharp as are the untrimmed ends of cut zip-ties. Zippers on a jacket are sharps. Eyeglass frames are sharps. Long nails are sharps. And of course, the ground is an entire surface of sharps.

                If you're holding a large, inflated balloon in wind, it will go all over the place and is very difficult to control. It needs to be held clear of everything while being inflated. This is first half of the reason high wind is a no go for balloon use. The above tent system allowed us to launch in higher wind, but we still had significant problems.

                One of the procedures you would see during the above launches is that there is a team assigned to hold the payload under the balloon after balloon release. This can involve running, if there's the above stiff wind. They only let go when the balloon has gained enough altitude that it's lifting the payload out of their hands (they supported not held the payload). A large part of that was so that the balloon doesn't get pulled down by the payload and hit the ground (another is the payload doesn't drag on the ground). This movement creates a new safety issue since one has to clear the launch area of tripping hazards and refuse to launch in high winds.

                Premature release is a big issue aside from losing a pricey balloon and whatever is attached to it. FCC requirements are that balloons don't launch unless you confirm high sky visibility and no air traffic in the way. Accidentally letting go of a balloon means you don't have this. And if it's slightly buoyant rather than the 1000 ft/minute rise (5 m/s) above, then you might have it drag whatever it's carrying through air traffic lanes and power lines.

                Entanglement can happen under a variety of situations. At launch, your launch crew can get entangled in cables and rope hanging off the balloon or payload. If the balloon pops prematurely, it can easily entangle your parachute or other devices for descent control. So can cables that connect the balloon to the payload. The usual approach is to make the payload fluffy enough that even if it's wrapped up in a popped balloon, it'll come down softly enough.

                Objects falling off the payload is another problem. Our safety procedures included examining the entire payload for loose items like loose screws, forgotten tools, or improperly fastened components. That way we don't have objects falling off the vehicle in flight. A metal wrench falling 10 km straight down could really hurt.

                And as I mentioned, when the payload falls, you need to design for it to be falling without parachute properly deployed. That's where the "3oz/in^2 surface loading" you mentioned above comes into play. Even if everything fails, it'll be fluffy enough to fall slowly.

                You have the usual environment safety risks: sunburn, heat and cold exposure injuries, insect bites, lightning, dangerous weather, etc.

                If you're doing last minute electronics, then you have the various risks from that such as power cables in the outdoors/puddles or soldering iron safety.

                If you're recovering the gear, which you might often want to do, there's a variety of safety issues. Bad roads are your greatest enemy. JP Aerospace routinely had customers who thought they could rent some SUVs from Reno and drive them crazily on Nevada backroads. One particularly bad year saw 15 lost tires and two rear axles. Another time, I broke my arm in two places when I was driving too fast on a dirt road (driving an unfamiliar rear wheel pick up truck while following someone in a four wheel drive SUV). Communicate with private property owners before you enter their property so you don't get shot and/or arrested. And bring food, water, and warm clothing as well as basic hiking gear, detailed maps of a couple hundred miles around your expected landing spot, GPS, etc.

              • (Score: 1) by khallow on Wednesday February 08 2023, @07:09PM (1 child)

                by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday February 08 2023, @07:09PM (#1290776) Journal

                Do you know of any 101 primer on balloon launch safety?

                Welp, JP doesn't know of one either though he says he has some video on YouTube for how to do balloon rigging and how to do a balloon check list which might help put together a safety checklist. I'll see if I can find these videos.

                • (Score: 2) by ElizabethGreene on Thursday February 09 2023, @12:46AM

                  by ElizabethGreene (6748) on Thursday February 09 2023, @12:46AM (#1290811) Journal

                  Don't burn a lot of time on it. I very much appreciate the help you've already shared. Thank you for that.

  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by Mojibake Tengu on Sunday February 05 2023, @08:13AM

    by Mojibake Tengu (8598) on Sunday February 05 2023, @08:13AM (#1290345) Journal

    Point is, this year the February 5 is a Lantern Festival, Zodiac switch on Full Moon. So timing for airship is adequately funny.

    Though some friends with Intelligence background mentioned lately the Americans were really scared up to panic mode when someone of them suddenly realized the balloon may be aerial EMP device, effectively covering huge area of the West coast...
    I guess "Lantern" would be a proper codename for such weapon.

    In other news,

    The Chinese side expresses its strong disapproval and protest against force used by the US to attack a civilian unmanned airship.

    Anyway, the political trolling was a success. And high altitude wind trajectories are now obvious. This could be interesting when a real war happens.

    --
    Respect Authorities. Know your social status. Woke responsibly.
  • (Score: 2) by turgid on Sunday February 05 2023, @11:24AM

    by turgid (4318) on Sunday February 05 2023, @11:24AM (#1290351) Journal

    It would be interesting to capture one of these balloons and have a look at it in some detail. Then you could hand it back to the Chinese and say, "We found that balloon you lost."

  • (Score: 2) by srobert on Sunday February 05 2023, @04:37PM (1 child)

    by srobert (4803) on Sunday February 05 2023, @04:37PM (#1290369)

    The American people and their government took down the balloon as if to say, "It is unacceptable for nations to interfere with the sovereignty of other nations in this way." To which the Chinese will respond, "We're glad to hear that you think so because ..."

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Monday February 06 2023, @07:14PM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday February 06 2023, @07:14PM (#1290498) Journal

      To which the Chinese will respond, "We're glad to hear that you think so because ..."

      Whataboutisms only work when the "because" is less bad than shooting down balloons and the listener isn't hypocritical. When either of the above fails, the argument isn't going to be taken seriously.

  • (Score: 2) by legont on Monday February 06 2023, @02:21AM (1 child)

    by legont (4179) on Monday February 06 2023, @02:21AM (#1290415)

    Just imagine how many Russian balloons are flying out there all the time.

    Meantime, Biden admin in its infinitive wisdom, revealed that many of them were flying during Trump times https://www.foxnews.com/politics/chinese-spy-balloons-over-us-during-trump-admin-discovered-after-he-left-office-senior-biden-official [foxnews.com]

    --
    "Wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding" - John Kenneth Galbraith.
    • (Score: 4, Touché) by DeathMonkey on Monday February 06 2023, @06:52PM

      by DeathMonkey (1380) on Monday February 06 2023, @06:52PM (#1290493) Journal

      And, what a coincidence, suddenly the balloons are totally fine and it's the transparency we hate!

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