Spy balloons over Barbados in 2016!
Not quite a Chinese Spy Balloon (hereafter CSB), but a very good illustration of the principles involved in this kind of spying.
It’s a product of the Google Loon project, development of which commenced in 2011 as a cheap alternative to satellites to provide worldwide internet connectivity by using balloons. (I’ll refer to the balloons as “Loons.”) This is a longer video about Loon, but the principle of navigating balloons is explained from 3:57 through to 4:59. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it to stop automatically.) It uses a ballonet, a ballon within a balloon. Air is pumped into or evacuated from the ballonet, changing the buoyancy of the system, and giving it the capability to rise or fall. The Wikipedia entry gives an altitude range of 18km to 25km, or from about 60,000ft to 80,000ft. Because of the often extreme variation of wind speed and direction at different altitudes, the direction and speed of drift can be controlled to some extent.
This site displays global wind pattern animations for various altitudes. From the menu, you may change the height, given in hPa, from the surface (about 1013hPa) up to 10hPa, corresponding to about 25km. 500hPa is about 5km. It’s very pretty. Pressure at 65,000 feet is about 57hPa, so there is no exact correspondence in the animation to the purported 65,000ft altitude of the CSB.
Loons have no means of propulsion; they drift with whatever winds they encounter at their altitude. This is unlike a dirigible or airship, which has propellor propulsion, and an elongated shape to minimise cross-section in the direction of travel. The Loon is a spheroid, wider than it is high, at full expansion. In this it differs from a normal weather balloon, or indeed a CSB. The Chinese, in the Global Times, have unhelpfully referred to the balloon as an “airship,” a designation for which the images give no support. None of the images I have seen show anything but a sphere with a dependent array of solar panels and, no doubt, antennae. This balloon probably contains a ballonet, because the same article refers to the object’s “limited self-steering capability.” The U.S. Defense Department is not persuaded.
But a U.S. defense official rejected such claims, telling The Post that it lingered near sensitive sites including Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has a nuclear missile silo field. The Washington Post
The offical did not attempt to explain the means by which this mal-lingering was achieved.
This whole episode has been an exercise in more-or-less calculated media and political insanity. The scariest possibility out of this lunacy is that there were senior Pentagon officers who actually believed that this was a “Chinese spy balloon.” That possibility is very remote, but the alternative is terrifying in another way; men who knew the reality were complicit in whipping up anti-China hysteria. This in the context of senior commanders having recently set the date for war with China as soon as 2025.
Now a second CSB has been spotted passing over Latin America—searching for lost U.S. nuclear missile silo fields, no doubt. Lingering somewhere in this madhouse, and encouraging this inflammatory circus, there may be those who seek to turn attention away from the war in Donbas, because they see that war as a distraction from, and the run-down of weapons stocks as a danger to, preparation for war with China. Motives may be even more pacific; wanting to end a bloody conflict that was never going to be “won,” and which risks setting Europe on fire. Even so, inflaming relations with China in order to achieve immediate aims is potentially suicidal. Still, even as the U.S. has the firewall of Europe and the Atlantic between it and Russia, having the firewall of Taiwan, Japan and the Pacific between it and China may encourage the taking of such risks.
Looney Tunes indeed.