Balloon expert explains the challenges of shooting down China’s alleged spy balloon • TechCrunch

Balloon expert explains the challenges of shooting down China’s alleged spy balloon • TechCrunch

Balloon expert explains the challenges of shooting down China's alleged spy balloon • TechCrunch

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Earlier this month, a suspected Chinese spy balloon drifted over much of the continental United States before an F-22 military fighter jet shot it down off the coast East. The event strained the already fragile relationship between the United States and China, with China claiming the errant balloon was merely collecting weather data. Knocking down the ball, Beijing said, was an “overreaction”.


The incident shed unexpected light on stratospheric balloon technology. High-altitude balloons themselves are nothing new: in fact, more than thousands of balloons operate in the stratosphere every day, Near Space Labs CEO Rema Matevosyan explained in an interview with TechCrunch. But it’s not every day you get shot out of the sky, Top Gun style.

Near Space Labs, an American company founded in 2017, operates a commercial fleet of high-altitude balloons. Near Space balloons – along with the thousands of other weather and Earth observation balloons currently floating around the stratosphere – are equipped with various payloads depending on their mission objective. The ability to swap payloads makes balloons a remarkably flexible platform for Earth observation, Matevosyan said.

She was hesitant to guess what information the Chinese balloon might have captured – “let’s wait for the data to be declassified on the sensors”, she suggested – but she noted that the Chinese balloon and its payload were significantly larger than the several thousand meteorological balloons equipped with atmospheric sensors. The size of the Chinese balloon’s payload, which US officials say was about the size of three school buses, could suggest there are multiple types of sensors, she said.

It is also difficult to shoot down an object at such a high altitude. The stratosphere is much thinner than the lower regions of the atmosphere, and while you can pop the balloon with a pin if you get close enough to it, well, it’s impossible to get that close given the limitations altitude of commercial aircraft. Military jets like the F-22 are not designed simply to carry missiles, but their unique shapes are optimized for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, speed and lift-to-mass ratio, Matevosyan explained. According to the Department of Defense, the F-22 fired the Sidewinder missile at an altitude of 58,000 feet; the balloon operated between 60,000 and 65,000 feet, so the missile did not have to travel very far through the stratosphere.

“The air is very rare,” Matevosyan said. “The stratosphere is closer to Mars’ atmosphere than to Earth’s atmosphere. It’s actually very complicated to find it. […] You really need an airplane because you need very stable platforms to be able to send the missile.

The big question – which neither TechCrunch nor Matevosyan can answer – is: why shoot that balloon down? Why now? The Pentagon said “instances of this type of balloon activity have already been observed in recent years.” There is no doubt that America is spying on China in turn. Given this, many wonder why Washington decided the time was right to draw a line in the sand. Whether the move will indelibly escalate relations between the two countries or end up being just another move in the superpower chess game remains to be seen.


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