UPDATE: Mark Sumner
I can absolutely guarantee that the balloon is doing less damage to the United States than House Republicans.
UPDATE: Mark Sumner
Oh, of course we are. Because this is almost definitional of where we are.
That might as well say “U.S. postpones trip over fear of Chinese dragons.” Because they’re just as real as spy balloons.
On Wednesday, what appeared to be a large weather balloon was spotted floating over Billings, Montana, at high altitude, drifting with the winds toward the east. That balloon is flying somewhere above 80,000 feet, where it is not an obstacle to either commercial or military air traffic. It previously passed over the Bering Sea and a large swath of Canada before reaching its current location. By using models of high altitude winds over the last several days, officials have determined that the ballon very likely originated somewhere in central China.
The level of panic that this device—which probably weighs less than the average toaster—has produced on Capitol Hill is astonishing. Barely Speaker Kevin McCarthy has called on President Joe Biden to convene a meeting of the “Gang of Eight”—intelligence committee members and leadership from both parties—to deal with this threat to national security. Inexplicably back in Congress, Rep. Ryan Zinke tweeted to declare that he would not “bow” to a balloon and insisted that the U.S. “shoot it down.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has declared that Donald Trump would have never allowed balloons to float through his air.
CNN notes that Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said he did not intend to follow Zinke’s advice because the balloon isn’t a physical threat, isn’t an intelligence threat, and isn’t a threat to aviation. In fact, the assessment is that there’s more risk in shooting it down than leaving it alone. Still, newscasts on Friday are featuring “experts” who insist that the balloon is either being steered by China, or was directed to pass over military bases and areas with sensitive intelligence. If this is true, America has a much bigger issue than dealing with a balloon because it would mean that the Chinese have discovered magic.
Here’s a quick confirmation from meteorologist Dan Satterfield showing where that balloon originated.
But while it’s possible to track a balloon in the reverse direction and find where it originated, no one—no one—can precisely track the course of a balloon into the future.
As the National Weather Service notes, 1,800 weather balloons are released each day. Most of these are roughly 6 feet in diameter at the ground, increasing to around 20 feet as they reach altitudes over 80,000 feet. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 feet, they pop, and the instrument package dangling from the base of the balloon—which is used to collect information about the atmosphere at high altitude—descends to the ground beneath a parachute to be recovered. In addition to these official weather balloons, both industry and amateurs launch hundreds, if not thousands, of additional balloons each day, with the intention of detecting high-altitude cosmic rays, testing hardware that will be used in a satellite, or just collecting some incredible photos.
But tracking the course of these balloons is a genuine challenge. There are dozens of sites into which both professionals and amateurs can plug information about the balloon, including ones from NOAA, but the actual path is highly sensitive to the weight of the instruments, the amount of helium or hydrogen used to inflate the balloon, temperature at the time of launch, and most of all, to high-altitude winds. Even over just a few hundred miles, a balloon can go off the expected course by … a few hundred miles. The details of all the various layers of wind at altitude is one piece of data brought back by the balloon, but it’s very rarely something that can be captured accurately going in. And again, no one, but no one, could launch a balloon in central China and “aim” it to fly above a missile silo in Montana.
The average balloon sent aloft flies a few hundred miles before it reaches an altitude where the latex is strained to popping. Then the instruments instruments descend under a parachute and are retrieved. They can also be lost, which happens with some frequency, as parachutes end up coming down dozens of miles away from the expected landing site in poorly accessible terrain.
The Chinese balloon above Montana appears to be quite large, perhaps 40 feet in diameter. However, this gives a false impression. Such a balloon would have been about 10 feet across at launch and easily small enough to be handled and launched by one person. Dangling from the balloon are instruments, the purpose of which are not clear. However, it’s possible to say with near certainty what they are not meant to do: They’re not there to image U.S. military facilities or gather information about missile silos.
How can we be sure? Well, here’s a paper from Nature published in January. While noting that SpaceX set another record for launches in 2022 (over half of all satellites in orbit now belong to Elon Musk, so if you want to be paranoid about something, that’s a good place to start) it also says this:
China conducted 62 successful launches, 9 more than in 2021. Many were government launches, but a quickly growing fraction belongs to commercial rocket providers. Overall, China’s launch rate in 2022 was almost triple that of Russia. “China is replacing Russia as the number-two space power,” McDowell says.
China does not need to send weather balloons openly drifting across the United States in the hopes that one of them might accidentally wander across something worthy of a snapshot. It has very good spy satellites orbiting over us right now. Many of them. Those satellites are thought to be on par with the instruments used by the United States. So if China wants to note the license plate on your car, or sneak a peek while you’re tanning on the deck, they don’t need no stinkin’ balloon to do so.
What almost certainly happened in this case is something that regularly happens: Someone underfilled the balloon back in China. So instead of rising to something like 100,000 feet and popping, allowing the instrument package to parachute down and be collected, the balloon rose to something around 70,000 feet to 80,000 feet, where it has been bobbing along for days, probably collecting nothing at all because the instruments were never designed to operate for this long. Not only is China not getting any intelligence from this balloon, it’s highly likely they didn’t even know where it was until someone trained binoculars on it in Billings. It’s long since stopped phoning home.
Underinflation is a genuine PITA for those launching balloons because it means you rarely get your instruments back. It’s the last thing you want to happen.
The whole idea that China would be collecting significant intelligence by balloon in 2023 is an insult to everyone involved. The idea that such a balloon can be steered, or even aimed, to pass over a particular site is an utter impossibility. The fact that these things are both being not just stated by supposed experts on national media, but being touted as a possible national security concern is … typical.
And if we end up launching a $10 million missile to take down a $300 lost balloon doing nothing, no one should be surprised.
Side note: Some of you may recall back in 2019 when I was preparing to launch Kosmos-1, a Daily Kos-themed weather balloon that was intended to carry a set of typical instruments and a plethora of cameras up for a ride at the “edge of space.” If you’re wondering what happened to that important scientific mission to snap the site logo against a black sky, the answer is … I happened. As in, while inflating the balloon, I allowed the thin latex envelop to touch the grass. Which was enough to turn about $100 of helium into a slow-motion belch. After that came the pandemic, and Kosmos-1, along with several other decorated Styrofoam minnow buckets—er, space capsules—remains on a table in my basement. Someday.
On this episode of The Downballot, don't miss a special double-guest episode. Hear from Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, as she discusses the group's efforts to roll back the corrupting effects of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and their plans for campaign finance reform. Then, law professor Quinn Yeargain joins to discuss the surprising setback Gov. Kathy Hochul faced in the state capitol and what it means for the future of New York's top court.