The U.S. Military may have shot down a hobbyist balloon worth $12 in a string of attacks launched against UFOs in North American airspace last weekend. While the National Weather Service and many other weather organizations around the world regularly launch weather balloons into the sky every day, there is a growing hobbyist field that does the same too with a similar goal. Using large, inexpensive balloons, these hobbyists are sending up tiny payloads with built-in radios to take weather readings and even pictures as they float around the globe. Some are taking the data captured by these “personal” balloons to improve weather forecast models.
A hobbyist group referring to themselves as the “Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade” ,or NIBBB for short, says one of its hobby craft went “missing in action” over Alaska on February 11, the same day a U.S. F-22 jet downed an unidentified airborne object not far away above Canada’s Yukon territory.
“We at the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade are excited to see the recent interest in our hobby. The goal of our group is to share factual and technically correct information about pico balloons and the flights of those that we launch. Our desire is to continue pursuing that goal in the midst of all this,” they wrote in a statement on their website.
According to their website, one of their pico balloons, one that transmits call sign K9YO, stopped transmitting. “As noted on our ‘Locate and Track’ page and blog, the last transmission from that balloon received and reported to the WSPR system was on February 11, 2023, and indicated that balloon was near Hagemeister Island, off the southwest corner of Alaska. Since we have not found a transmission from that balloon since that time, we have declared it “Missing In Action”, as we have with previous flights. At that time, K9YO had circumnavigated the globe 6 times and was nearing the completion of a 7th lap. Unfortunately, that’s where the factual information on its location ends,” they added.
The club added that they have another pico balloon flying near Antarctica which continues to report data to their website.
“As has been widely reported, no part of the object shot down by the U.S. Air Force jet over the Yukon territory has been recovered. Until that happens and that object is confirmed to be an identifiable pico balloon, any assertions or claims that our balloon was involved in that incident are not supported by facts.”
A pico balloon is a hobbyist balloon carrying a tiny payload. For under $20 for a balloon and under $20 for electronics in the payload it carries, a tremendous amount of insight can be made of weather patterns and atmospheric steering currents. The hobby combines the worlds of meteorology with HAM radio operation, giving people from all ages the opportunity to explore the sky above with limited experience or budget.
“Project Picoballoon” is another related endeavor that is planning to manufacture tiny instrument packages that people can use on their own balloons to peer into the atmosphere with. They describe themselves as a “student team of engineers developing hardware and software for atmospheric research”; their goal is to develop ultralight stratospheric probes, upper-air horizontal sounding balloons, data processing APIs and data visualization tools to present the data these objects collect.
The White House and the Pentagon haven’t shared any details of what they shot down and have yet to find the objects they did shoot down.
Some have been vocal about the use of military aircraft to shoot down objects like hobbyist balloons. Texas Senator Ted Cruz joked on Twitter that President Joe Biden’s decision to authorize the $200 million fighter jet to use a $400,000 missile to shoot down what may have been a $12 balloon serves as a “powerful deterrence to high school students interested in creating their own at-home science balloons.”
While more and more hobbyists are experimenting with these balloons, the National Weather Service is by far the largest user / launcher of them across North America. By supplementing data captured by weather satellites, the National Weather Service launches at least 2 mission critical balloon launches every day, and sometimes more when conditions warrant, from its offices around the United States and its territories and possessions.
The weather balloon carries a device called a radiosonde high into the atmosphere to collect important data. The radiosonde is a small, expendable instrument package that is suspended about 80 feet below a large balloon inflated with hydrogen. As the radiosonde rises at about about 1,000 feet/minute, sensors on it measure profiles of pressure, temperature, and relative humidity. These sensors are linked to a battery powered radio transmitter that sends the sensor measurements to a sensitive ground tracking antenna. Wind speed and direction aloft are also obtained by tracking the position of the radiosonde in flight using GPS or a radio direction finding antenna. The radio signals received by the tracking antenna are converted to meteorological values and from these data significant levels are selected by a computer, put into a special code form, and then transmitted to data users. High vertical resolution flight data, among other data, are also archived and sent to the NOAA National Climatic Data Center.
When released, the weather balloon is about 5 feet in diameter. As it rises into thin air, it gradually expands as a result of the difference in air pressure with the balloon and the air that surrounds it. When the balloon reaches a diameter of 20 to 25 feet in diameter, it bursts. A small parachute slows the descent of the radiosonde, minimizing the danger to lives and property of the small lightweight device.
And there it goes!
We captured today’s @noaa weather balloon launch that’ll not only help w/global forecast models, but w/an understanding of the wind profile above #KilaueaEruption for ash/vog dispersion. This is from our FacebookLive today in Hilo. #HIwx pic.twitter.com/ui3svwsjgX
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) June 23, 2018
Eventually the weather balloon bursts and the radiosonde makes its way back to earth. The radiosonde itself is made to be as environmental friendly as possible; it’s made of foam, cardboard, and a small amount of electronics. During a launch observed in Hilo, Hawaii, Meteorologist Technician Michael Reilly told us, “We try to be as green as possible. There are components that are biodegradable. And on top is a bag attached that says, ‘remove bag for mailing instructions.’” People that find these radiosondes are encouraged to mail them back in the bag to NOAA for reconditioning and recycling. A reconditioning office will try to harvest as much of the radiosonde that wasn’t damaged in the fall, reusing it for future missions. .
Worldwide, there are over 800 upper-air observation stations and through international agreements data are exchanged between countries. Most upper air stations are located in the Northern Hemisphere and all observations are usually taken at the same time each day every day of the year. In the United States, the National Weather Service launches balloons at 92 stations; 69 are in the continental U.S., 13 are in Alaska, 9 are in the Pacific , and 1 is in Puerto Rico.