How was the Chinese balloon different from weather balloons?

The Chinese high-altitude balloon shot down in early February off the coast of South Carolina is very different from a typical weather balloon, a manufacturer that supplies weather balloons to the US government has said.

Its enormous size would ensure it could stay in the atmosphere for months, rather than just hours, and carry a payload of 1,000 pounds or more, said Paul Fetkowitz, president of Kaymont Consolidated.

His company supplies about 100,000 balloons to the US government each year for use by the space program and the military, as well as the National Weather Service.

The Chinese balloon is the only object yet to be identified by the joint US-Canada investigation into four objects shot down from the skies by the US military in February, according to a news conference held Monday by the RCMP, the Guard Canadian Coastal and Canadian Army. .

Fetkowitz spoke with Star about how weather balloons differ from the Chinese balloon.

Ask: So how different is a weather balloon from the Chinese one that was shot down?

Answer: First of all, the balloon that was shot down was huge. It was 10 times bigger than a weather balloon. And the payload on that balloon was a couple thousand pounds. Therefore, the only type of balloons that are launched with that type of payload are long-term scientific study balloons that are launched from the Columbia Science Balloon Facility. And those payloads are definitely designed for long-term studies. They fly for about 130 or 140 days. They take their data and then there is a controlled detonation in a part of the balloon which slowly leaks the lifting gas and they bring the balloon down in a controlled descent.

Ask: Can electronic equipment attached to the balloon be recovered?

Answer: Yeah. And the Chinese balloon had such a mechanism. The balloon was not made of latex. It was some kind of extruded polyethylene balloon where they could have shot it down in a controlled way.

Ask: Was there any way to steer or maneuver that balloon, the Chinese one?

Answer: Following the balloon and what the winds do, you can raise and lower the balloon. The winds blow in different directions. So at 80,000 or 70,000 feet, let’s say the winds are blowing slightly in one direction, but at 40,000 or 60,000 feet, the winds are blowing strongly in a different direction. So if you attach a ballast to a balloon or a type of vent mechanism where you can let gas out and you can drop weight over the course of a long term flight, you can essentially have rudimentary control of where the balloon will go using altitude adjustment.

Ask: And how much could you control, like just in their direction?

Answer: By controlling your altitude, you can usually only control your direction. You can take the balloon miles in one direction. And then you can take the balloon down with the wind blowing backwards and bring the balloon miles back towards you. I don’t know the details, but I know that this is how it’s done.

Ask: Did the Chinese balloon expand as it rose into the sky like a weather balloon?

Answer: It doesn’t keep expanding. There is a volume of lift gas inside that balloon that takes you to an altitude. And then the balloon can remain at a constant level. It doesn’t keep expanding like a latex balloon. It might not have been completely full when it was launched, but when it reached the desired height, it had that nice, full, round look.

Ask: Usually, if it was a big balloon launched for scientific purposes, would people know about it?

Answer: The science balloons that are launched from the science balloon facility, you could say yes, when you launch one of those balloons, it’s more of a collaboration. The scientific community tends to collaborate. While the watchdog community would do no such thing. I think the fact that no one stepped forward from a neutral country or another country saying, ‘hey, you know, we were part of the payload on that balloon that you just shot down,’ that’s not the case because it wasn’t a scientific research globe.

Ask: Could China have recovered the team in it? Could the balloon ever have made it all the way back to China?

Answer: Absolutely. Those balloons go around the world. They would have navigated it back to a location where they would have had a controlled descent and recovered the package.

Ask: How are they launched (weather balloons)?

Answer: The balloons are filled with helium or hydrogen and the balloons are released all over the country at the same time. And the instrumentation on board the balloon takes a series of measurements of wind speed, wind, direction, pressure, temperature and humidity until the explosion. And that provides a weather profile from zero altitude to 110,000 feet. (Another company supplies the electronic packet that is attached to the globe for data collection.)

Ask: What are they made of? And how big are they?

Answer: Our balloons are made of natural latex. The balloons flown by the National Weather Service are approximately 1.8 meters wide at ground level. As they rise, there is a natural expansion of the gas inside the balloon as the balloon rises due to pressure. When they erupt, at about 100,000 to 110,000 feet, they are about 5.5 meters wide.

Ask: How long does it take the balloon to reach 110,000 feet?

Answer: It is about a 90 minute to 115 minute flight.

Ask: What happens when they burst?

Answer: Our balloons burst into thousands of little pieces. And the material we use is natural latex. So it’s a biodegradable material… and then there’s a parachute that carries the payload, or the electronics package, back to earth. And in more recent history, electronics have gotten smaller and smaller, so the need for a parachute, to ensure the electronics don’t damage anything when it falls, has been reduced. But there are still some science payloads that require a parachute.

Ask: So the parachute is to prevent it from causing damage when it falls, not to retrieve it.

Answer: That’s right. It also helps with package recovery because the parachutes are a bright orange color. So you can see it. But as I said, with the advancement of electronics, you no longer need such a large (electronic) package to collect the data.

Ask: I read something that said that about 20 percent of the electronic devices that are connected, they call them a radiosonde, I think, they recover. Do you know if it’s still like that?

Answer: Yes. There is a number on the radiosonde that can be called when found.

Ask: Can weather balloons be monitored from the ground?

Answer: Each radiosonde is connected to a ground station, to send a signal to the data collection point. And all the computers at the ground station are connected and all the data is collected and sent to a computer in Asheville, North Carolina, which collects all the data from all the balloon launches. But there is no GPS device to locate and retrieve it.

Ask: So do weather balloons usually only go up? Would the wind blow them from their course?

Answer: A weather balloon is affected by the wind. There is no address. You can launch our balloons in winds of up to 80 kilometers per hour and the balloon will take off on its side. But after reaching a certain height, the upper winds die down and the balloon is very quiet, very still, and rising without any effect of the wind after about 60,000 feet.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


The conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these views.

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