The Business of Low-Earth Orbit Balloons: Manufacturing, Detecting and Tracking Them

The Chinese spy balloon floating among the clouds

It’s been a crazy time for U.S. and Canadian officials when it comes to national air traffic recently. The increased attention to the skies wasn’t related to changes in weather or some Southwest Airline debacle. Instead, airspace tracking systems detected several unidentified balloons that heightened concerns. Ultimately, several of these were shot down by military aircraft including one suspected of being a Chinese spy balloon. But the increased attention to these balloons isn’t because of a sudden boom in their presence. In fact, on any given day, thousands of balloons hover over U.S. airspace.

The Chinese Spy Balloon being obvious
The Chinese Spy Balloon might have clued you in: low-Earth orbit balloons are big business.

Without question, the presence of a possible Chinese spy balloon has many officials and politicians worried. This has accounted for the recent publicity and increased awareness of atmospheric balloons. But as it turns out, there are many uses for these devices ranging from scientific to commercial ones. There are even some companies advancing the capabilities of high- and low-orbiting balloons for future purposes. Given this, the challenge the U.S. faces now is determining which balloons are “friendly” and which ones aren’t. Whether you realize it or not, balloon flight represents a major industry that we cannot do without.

“You want to put a telescope up? You want to do atmospheric monitoring? You want to study the sun? You want to look down on the oceans or land? Across these and a whole series of other research fields there are just immense applications.” – Alan Stern, Chief Scientist, World View Enterprises

A Balloon-Filled Sky

The use of low-orbiting balloons for various purposes dates back to the 1800s when they were used for weather-related research. This remained the primary use of these devices well into the 20th century. But since the 1980s, there has been a notable increased interest in their use for a variety of endeavors. NASA began constructing and using balloons as part of their atmospheric and climate-related research. DARPA has also used this technology to explore potential communications systems. And of course, the National Weather Service has deployed weather balloons for decades in trying to improve weather pattern predictions. It’s therefore clear that balloons have been filling our skies for some time.

(Speaking of climate-related research, did you know California’s measures to combat climate change are bad policy? Read why in this Bold story.)

Given this, it might be puzzling why the U.S. and Canadian militaries have suddenly become so concerned about these structures. The reason for this is two-fold. The first involves the suspected Chinese spy balloon that hovered over the U.S. for a week before being destroyed. This low-orbiting balloon had the potential to obtain much more detailed images than a satellite might. Naturally, this is worrisome when considering their potential in assessing military installations and critical infrastructures. But the other reason is that most balloons in use are not low-orbiting ones. The vast majority are over 100 feet above the ground and pose little threat to civilian aircraft. In contrast, the alleged Chinese spy balloon hovered at a height of only 60,000 feet. For these reasons, radar sensitivities were increased in an effort to better grasp the situation.

“We have been more closely scrutinizing our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we’ve detected over the past week.” – Melissa Dalton, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs

The Business of Balloons

When it comes to subspace atmospheric balloons, categories generally divide them into high-altitude and low-orbiting balloons. The dividing line, though somewhat arbitrary, is around 100,000 feet. Those being used for science and research often fall into to the high-altitude category. But commercial uses for both types are also common and involve a number of uses. For example, Google and other companies have tried to develop high-altitude balloons to deliver Internet communications. Though this has yet to prove as successful as satellite-based systems like Starlink, it reflects how advanced balloons have become. The same is true for low-orbiting balloons like the one of the reported Chinese spy balloon. These can be used to collect much more detailed surface data and images as well as short-distance transport.

A low-orbiting balloon just chilling up there
Sure, balloons can be used for spying… but they can be used for fun hobbies, too.

(Elon Musk’s Starlink is kicking innovative butt–read more in this Bold story.)

Notably, there are few companies happy to provide these balloons to science, research and commercial enterprises. World View Enterprises in Tucson, Arizona, has been in the business of low-orbiting balloons as well as high-altitude ones. Its latest endeavor involved a multi-day mission to carry cargo to the edge of space. Another company, Raven Aerostar in South Dakota, is pursuing advanced steering capabilities of its balloons. The reported Chinese spy balloon had some degree of steering capacities based on its observed maneuverability. It would thus appear that balloon technologies are progressing well along with the companies invested in them.

“You’ve got materials within the missile, materials in the payload of the balloon, and then the balloon itself. So, lots of different things that may find their way into the ocean.” – Paul Gayes, Coastal Carolina University marine expert

Challenges and Issues with Balloons

One of many low-orbiting balloons
The purpose of low-orbiting balloons can vary from the clandestine to the recreational, but the common denominator is that there’s an industry there!

At the same time, heightened public awareness of low-orbiting balloons raised by the Chinese spy balloon poses new issues also. Environmentalists for years complain about the debris pollution in the oceans caused by balloons. Many high-altitude balloons typically self-destruct once they reach super-high atmospheric heights. Likewise, most are designed not to create significant debris. But in some cases, this fails to happen. And certainly, when missiles destroy balloons, debris is inevitable. Therefore, these issues must be better addressed if tighter surveillance and enforcement over low-orbiting balloons are to continue.

Other challenges related to detecting and identifying risky low-orbiting balloons was also shown this past week. Based on the low-orbit nature and lack of information, several balloons were shot down with missiles. The reason stated for this was related to public safety. But with literally thousands of balloons hovering over the U.S. at any given time, is this feasible? The FAA authorizes high-altitude balloon launches and flights, and therefore, is routinely aware of these. But the lack of prior radar detection of these low-orbit balloons is now posing difficulties in response. A happy medium will have to be determined that detects risk yet avoids excessive responses.


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