The media has been agog with the sudden flurry of objects in the sky that have been shot down by the US military. There have been four so far in the space of eight days. The objects have been nothing if not varied. So far, we have had the large white balloon that started the process, followed by what was described as. a small car-like object, then a cylindrical object, and then an octogonal one. The Chinese government has acknowledged that the balloon was theirs but say that it was a meteorological balloon and not a spy device. No one has claimed ownership of the other three objects.
What is peculiar is that all four objects were essentially propelled by the ambient wind currents and thus drifted at very low speeds. Of course, this has spurred all manner of claims (seriously by UFOlogists and facetiously by skeptics) that these are probes sent by extra-terrestrials to gain data before they invade.
Assuming that these were spying devices by another country, I would have thought they merited urgent back-channel discussions between the governments to defuse the situation. After all, no one in their right mind would want a direct conflict between nuclear powers. What bothers me is the hyper-aggressive response that has been taken.
U.S. authorities have made clear that they constantly monitor for unknown radar blips, and it is not unusual to shut down airspace as a precaution to evaluate them. But the unusually assertive response was raising questions about whether such use of force was warranted, particularly as administration officials said the objects were not of great national security concern and the downings were just out of caution.
Rather than ratchet down the tensions with China (which is after all a nuclear power), some seem to be delighting in gloating over the shooting down of the balloon, using it as device for the ever-popular anti-China posturing.
US and Canadian military are continuing to search by sea and land amid hostile weather conditions in a scramble to recover portions of three flying objects shot down over North American airspace in the past week.
The Democratic majority leader of the US Senate, Chuck Schumer, told ABC’s This Week on Sunday that he had been briefed by the White House and that officials were now convinced that all three of the flying objects brought down by air-to-air missiles this week were balloons. He put the finger of blame firmly on China.
“The Chinese were humiliated – I think the Chinese were caught lying,” he said. “It’s a real setback for them.”
Hours later a spokesperson for the White House national security council tried to tamp down some of Schumer’s rhetoric, saying it was too early to characterise the two latest flying objects shot down over Alaska and Canada. Definitive answers would have to wait for the debris to be recovered, the official said.
Democrats are always sensitive to the charge from Republicans that they are not ‘tough’ in their defense of US interests and tend to be too eager to use force to counter such charges, though by now they should have realized that Republicans will keep saying it whatever they do. Meanwhile Republicans want to know why the balloon was not shot down immediately it was detected. Being cautious and deliberate in dangerous situations is not in their nature.
Countries that have the capability and resources to spy on each other do so all the time, using satellites, other electronic means, and human beings. So what is unusual is why, if these are all indeed spying devices, such slow, low-flying, devices were used. What could they glean that satellites could not?
An object shot down Saturday over Canada’s Yukon was described by U.S. officials as a balloon significantly smaller than the balloon — the size of three school buses — hit by a missile Feb. 4. A flying object brought down over the remote northern coast of Alaska on Friday was more cylindrical and described as a type of airship.
Both were believed to have a payload, either attached or suspended from them, according to the officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation. Officials were not able to say who launched the objects and were seeking to figure out their origin.
The three objects were much smaller in size, different in appearance and flew at lower altitudes than the suspected spy balloon that fell into the Atlantic Ocean after the U.S. missile strike.
The officials said the other three objects were not consistent with the fleet of Chinese aerial surveillance balloons that targeted more than 40 countries, stretching back at least into the Trump administration.
The question that interests me most is a scientific and technological one: How were the non-balloons able to float and maintain directionality?
Large airships have engines and propulsion systems to steer them. Balloons have to take advantage of wind currents in the upper atmosphere to guide them. There are wind currents going in all directions at different altitudes and if you have that detailed knowledge, then you can adjust your height to snag a current that will take you in the direction you want to go. But that is not easy. I recently read an article that described the race to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon and it requires a pretty impressive feat of engineering. It is also a very delicate process that requires constant human intervention
In the Geneva airport, Piccard’s weather team projected the movements of atmospheric winds all over the world. Using models that were based on the spread of nuclear fallout over Europe after the Chernobyl disaster, the weathermen, Luc Trullemans and Pierre Eckert, had mapped an approximate trajectory for the circumnavigation. Balloon pilots have no way of steering; they can change direction only by going up or down, to inhabit different winds. If Piccard and Jones had any chance at success, it would be from the weather team’s careful reading of the jet streams.
That two-person crew needed propane tanks that could be turned on and off in order to change the buoyancy and thus the height.
How these recent remote controlled devices managed it would be interesting to know.
Seth Meyers takes a closer look at this sudden influx of flying objects.