In staying current with recent events, I thought it might be interesting to discuss the technology behind modern high-altitude balloons. The recent “spy” balloon that was spotted over Montana last week and was eventually shot down off the Carolina coastline was likely based off of technology similar to that developed by Raven Aerostar. Raven Aerostar is a sister company to Google and was exploring the use of high-altitude balloons to provide rural internet services.
Alphabet, the parent company of both Google and Raven Aerostar, funded a project in 2020 to experiment with stationary high-altitude balloons to provide rural internet services by creating an air-born wireless network. The idea was to reduce the latency created by satellite internet by moving the satellite transceivers closer to the ground. Raven Aerostar designed custom balloons capable of sustaining flight for more than 30 days in a stationary position through an advanced balloon navigation system. Project Loon was shut down in January 2021 after several experiments were conducted throughout the U.S.
The crazy thing about it all was that the technology works; they were able to create mesh networks in the air with swarms of balloons and keep the balloon constellations stationary regardless of the upper air currents. After the cancellation of Project Loon, Raven Aerostar continued to develop their technology for other sectors, primarily intelligence and defense.
Raven Aerostar’s Thunderhead balloon system is designed to persist over an area of interest to carry out a variety of tasks, such as surveillance and reconnaissance missions as well as acting as communications relays. The Thunderhead balloon system is a super-pressure balloon (SPB) with a gondola that contains a payload, flight system and solar panels. The balloon is pumpkin-shaped and composed of polyethylene. The Thunderhead is sold in two varieties, the 200 SPB (64,000 cubic feet of volume) and the 400 SPB (400,000 cubic feet of volume). The 200 SPB can fly as high as 50,000-60,000 feet and the 400 SPB tops out at 92,000 feet.
The steering mechanism is controlled by a smaller balloon referred to as a “ballonet” housed inside the larger balloon that acts as a ballast. Air injected into the ballonet using an on-board pump permits the balloon to modify its weight to ascend and descend. Operators cannot directly control the speed and direction of the flight, but combining the ballast effect of the ballonet with real-time weather awareness allows the balloon to leverage wind patterns at different altitudes to navigate. Prior to the addition of this technology, high-altitude balloons were completely at the mercy of the prevailing weather patterns.
Raven Aerostar explained that their Thunderhead balloons are capable of providing stable services over a very large area for months at a time and their high altitude makes them difficult to reach with current anti-air countermeasures. Although often overlooked, balloons are making a modern resurgence in reconnaissance and communications in recent years.
After having read some of the information on the new balloon technologies I have to believe that we were intended to find the “spy” balloon over Montana, as the normal altitude of these balloons is above clear line of sight and air traffic control radar, making them nearly invisible until they drop below their expected altitude. Reports on the recently spotted spy balloon indicate that no signals were detected from the balloon, meaning no communications back home. However, learning that these balloons are capable of remaining in a single location at an extremely high altitude for months at a time, it is highly possible that this particular balloon has been monitoring our nuclear weapons site in Montana for months before shutting down its communication systems and drifting out of control across the rest of the U.S., undetected until its demise. The fact that the balloon was visible from the ground indicates that it was well below its normal altitude before being discovered.
Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.
Scott Hamilton is an Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to email@example.com or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.