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Thursday, February 16, 2023

Chinese "Spy Balloons" ruining it for everyone else

All this commotion about the so-called "Chinese Spy Balloon" has been truly incredible to watch. There is a lot of information we are NOT getting from the military or our intelligence agencies. While that is not unusual, this leads to a lot of speculation about what's happened and a lot of room for innuendo and hyperbole on how serious the situation was. And now a fun part of ham radio may be the ultimate victim of this travesty.

I was with UT's amateur radio club back in the early 2000's and we launched balloon experiments several times. We did a few that were using latex-style balloons, and we sent payloads into high-altitudes (90-100k feet+) before the balloons burst and fell back to terra firma via parachute. These are the type the NWS sends up 2x/day to take a vertical snapshot of the atmosphere and help predict severe weather.

Then there were the zero-pressure style balloons, clear thin plastic that was designed to float in the jet-stream and we attempted to go across the Atlantic. We never made it but got very close (Our 3rd attempt went to within ~350 miles off the coast of Ireland).
"Pico" balloon from Bill Brown, WB8ELK

Then the "pico" payloads started happening. Literally a long cracker-sized circuit board that could transmit on very-low power on HF frequencies using APRS or a mode called "WSPR" ("whisper") and these used large mylar party balloons to go into the jet-stream. There were several that have gone around the world MULTIPLE times...see picture.

These were/are harmless experiments that were excellent for highlighting radio propagation using low power. Some have floated over "unfriendly" territory, mostly ignored, and seldom did one cause any issues. Unfortunately those days look to be over.

It appears at least 2 of these "objects" shot down were possibly these amateur radio pico balloons; one over Alaska near the Aleutians and another over Lake Huron.

Unfortunately one "bad apple" has ruined it for those of us who enjoy radio as a way to do exciting and fun things, educating kids and adults alike.

And the ironic thing, that "Chinese Spy Balloon" quite possibly WAS accidental! My hypothesis is that China lost control of the balloon and could not cut it down or command the balloon to raise/lower altitude in order to steer AWAY from the US. China might be ballsy but I don't think they're that crazy to actually send a LARGE WHITE AND COMPLETELY VISIBLE BALLOON all the way from CHINA, to catch a jet stream wave and MAYBE go over the US mainland to SPY. That's not "SPYING".....It may have had "listening equipment" but it might also have simply been communications equipment, essentially a high-altitude "repeater" in order to communicate with people in remote parts of China, either for military or commercial/civilian purposes. Not everything sent from China has to be attributed to espionage, does it?

Something else to consider, when you're floating at 65k feet altitude, the temperatures are down to around -70F to -100F, so it's possible the equipment froze up and stopped responding to ground commands. We had some amateur radio payloads stop functioning until they got closer to the ground and warmed up.

I could be wrong as well. But there's nothing to discount these possibilities either.

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