Friday night news dump: Search called off for probable mylar balloon shot down by Air Force over Arctic Sea ice

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Balloon clubs are saying they have a couple of missing balloons that they think may have been shot down by the U.S. Air Force.

Late on Friday night, the Department of Defense said it ended its search for an airborne object shot down over the Arctic Sea ice north of Deadhorse, Alaska on Feb. 10. The military also ended its search for airborne object shot down over Lake Huron on Feb. 12. Canadian military called off its search for an item shot down by the U.S. Air Force at the request of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The announcement came a day after a hobby group said it was missing one of its balloons. Aviation Week reported the day before that the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade is missing one of its party-style “pico” (metallic or mylar) balloons that had last pinged on Feb. 10, at about 38,910 feet in altitude off the western coast of Alaska near Hagemeister Island, on the north shore of Bristol Bay near the mouth of Togiak Bay.

In the joint statement released at 10 pm on Friday, the start of a three-day holiday weekend when many newsrooms were running with skeleton crews (including this one), the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command said the agencies had advised the search be called off because the objects were in difficult terrain. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin approved the Defense agencies’ recommendation.

“Search operations conclude today near Deadhorse, Alaska, and on Lake Huron, as search activities have discovered no debris from airborne objects shot down on” on Feb. 10 and 12 after “a variety of capabilities, including airborne imagery and sensors, surface sensors and inspections, and subsurface scans” had found no debris.

“The U.S. military, federal agencies, and Canadian partners concluded systematic searches of each area using a variety of capabilities, including airborne imagery and sensors, surface sensors and inspections, and surface scans, and did not locate debris,” NORAD wrote in a statement released on Facebook, but not on its own website. “The Secretary of Defense concurred with the recommendations.”

Northern Command worked closely with the Alaska National Guard, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to position teams to expedite recovery should searches locate debris, the agency said.

“Arctic conditions and sea ice instability informed decisions to conclude search operations in this location,” NORAD said.

As for searching for the object that fell over the Yukon in Canada, the Canadian military said snowfall had probably covered the debris and the search was called off.

On Lake Huron, the Unified Command Group consisting of capabilities from U.S. Coast Guard District 9, the FBI, Canadian Coast Guard, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police hare not identified debris from the airborne object after multiple days of surface searches and subsurface scans. That unidentified object is believed by officials to have fallen into the water on the Canadian side of the lake.

According to Aviation Week, all three unidentified objects shot down Feb. 10-12 “match the shapes, altitudes and payloads of the small pico balloons, which can usually be purchased for $12-180 each, depending on the type.”

The balloon shot down over the Yukon may have been an amateur radio pico balloon called K9YO-15, which launched from Independence Grove Forest Preserve in Libertyville, Illinois, north of Chicago, reported Space.com, adding that “K9YO-15 was apparently on its seventh circumnavigation of the globe after being aloft for 123 days.”

Pico balloons used by hobbyists and scientists are sometimes called a “poor man’s space program.”

Cary Willis of the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade (NIBBB), told Space.com that there are about three million amateur radio operators around the globe and the NIBBB is a subset of the group, using pico balloons that travel the globe.

“Our balloons are very small, 32-inch [81 centimeters] diameter, 100-inch [254 cm] circumference, pre-stretched and carry a payload of around 10 grams [0.35 ounces] including the tracker, solar panel and 33-foot [10 meters] antenna wire,” Willis explained to Inside Outer Space.

“Our pico balloon K9YO had been flying for 123 days preparing for the seventh time around the world when it went missing over Canada,” Willis said. “That wasn’t the first time K9YO went missing. After the fifth time around the world in 77 days, K9YO went missing for 30 days, reported on the 106th day over Mongolia and continued the sixth circumnavigation at 112 days.” 

Aviation Week contacted a host of government agencies, including the FBI, NORAD, the National Security Council, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense for comment about the possibility of pico balloons. The NSC did not respond to repeated requests from the publication. The FBI and OSD did not acknowledge that harmless pico balloons are being considered as possible identities for the mystery objects shot down by the Air Force, the publication said.

Pico balloons can be 3 feet in diameter on the ground before they are launched. As they ascend to altitudes of 20,000-50,000 ft, they expand under pressure. Learn more about pico balloons and the hobbyists who use them in this video:

Meanwhile, pilots have reported the FAA notifying them of a large white ballon between 40,000 and 50,000 feet that was about 600 miles east of the Hawaiian Islands over the weekend. Messages sent on the Aircraft Communications, Addressing and Reporting System show pilots acknowledging the alert, which has a request to report back if they spot any such object. INDOPACOM is reporting, “U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is aware of the reports of a large white balloon by civilian aircraft. We are looking into the reports and have nothing additional at this time.”

19 COMMENTS

  1. Brandon looks even weaker responding with the military over hobby balloons… Fear, fear-mongering, and posturing mark this. The Deadhorse balloon was likely a US Weather Service radiosond – and Brandon would never allow that to be discovered to his embarrassment. NWS launches radiosond from Wiley Post airport at Utqiagvik. Helicopter retrieval should have been very easy… Chicoms are laughing their heads off at this circus.

  2. But Biden did look strong and decisive – for three or four minutes – when he ordered the Air Force to shoot down all those birthday balloons with $489,000 missiles.

  3. Spending 1/2 million bucks a piece to shoot down innocuous items after failing to shoot down a genuine intelligence threat matches the rest of the idiocy undertaken under Biden’s incoherent, ineffective, unforgivable desecration of our nation. It is becoming clear that a disaster is unavoidable at this point, as it would be if a blind man was driving a bus on the interstate.

  4. Way to go woke military you make me feel safe at night. Some real planning went in on this and Biden had his say. We can’t even shoot down and recover a ballon but we can spy on our citizens .

        • Negative. A GPS locator the size of a pack of smokes and a foot square solar screen. The balloons are roughly 36″ diameter when you inflate them and in order to remain lighter than atmosphere they can’t have a fairly large package attached to them.

          A payload the size of a small pizza box lost in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding area. That pizza box won’t have fared well against a half million dollar military weapon and little of it will be found.

        • My apologies if I’ve responded prior and inadvertently nuked my own msg. There is a package attached to these balloons but it is not large. There is a tiny chip with two small capacitors on it that ‘wakes up’ during daylight hours and sends a GPS coordinate to indicate its whereabouts. It tips the scales at about 7 grams which is less than a US quarter coin. There’s also a tiny solar array that is similarly light, the entire mass being intended to comply w/ FAA regs pertaining to what could feasibly be ingested into a turbine motor’s intake and not destroy the motor on it’s way through.

          It’s not unusual for these balloons to circumvent the globe every week or two and I’d imagine the other countries might not give two rips what FAA regs allow but that’s the standard.

          Oddly, these units automatically shut off when over Yemen, North Korea and the UK for reasons I don’t know. They wake back up once the coordinates indicate that it’s ok to transmit coordinate data again.

          If a $400k rocket hit your home there would be little to recover. If a $400k rocket were to hit a a super thin balloon w/ transmitting hdwe that’s roughly the size and weight of a styrofoam pizza box there would be little to nothing that ever actually fell to the ground.

          • That’s if the sidewinder hit at point blank. If you’ve watched any sidewinders hit planes, many don’t even hit the wing or fuselage. They explode some yards away and the flack is what takes out the plane. I would think that Biden has to show an attempt, even a blatant failure of an attempt to recover the downed party balloon. Even if they had picked up the pieces we would have never heard about it. That would remove all doubt that Biden is an idiot rather than the suspicion being alive and well.

  5. This is the dysfunctional condition of our government, intelligence agencies, military, state department and executive branch. With absolutely no consideration and analysis of the utter disaster of the 20 year Afghanistan adventure, these incompetents start a war against Russia. A lot of people are being killed, entire nations destroyed, and they cannot differentiate spy satellites from hobby and weather balloons.

    • Intelligence agencies sent into rural areas to screw with particular families, gain access to particular children through manipulation of their “mothers”. The business licenses are window dressing com ce com ca. The agencies do this in other countries, of course they will arrogantly do the same in the United States.

  6. Not that long ago some US Military big wig was grousing about how another country spent a hugely expensive missile to take out a US drone. He joked that you could deplete their military strength for a few thousand bucks in cheapo drones.

    Now our own is spending a half mil taking out balloons.

    Where’s that General these days?

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