Hobby group worried that F-22’s Sidewinder missile destroyed research balloon

A group of hobbyists called the “Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade” is concerned that their research balloon may have been taken out by the US military.

The group said the balloon was “missing in action” on 15 February, according to Aviation Week.

The group now worries that the balloon was one of the three unidentified aerial objects recently shot down by US fighter jets using Sidewinder missiles in US and Canadian airspace.

The “pico balloon” most recently signalled its position on 10 February at 38,910 feet off the coast of Alaska, according to the publication. Projections indicated that it was floating towards the Yukon territory in Canada on 11 February.

It was on that day that a F-22 Raptor jet launched a missile at an unidentified object at an altitude of about 40,000 feet in that area after tracking it from US airspace over Alaska.

Ron Meadows, the founder of a company in Silicon Valley in California – Scientific Balloon Solutions – which makes pico balloons, told the outlet that he “tried contacting our military and the FBI, and just got the runaround, to try to enlighten them on what a lot of these things probably are. And they’re going to look not too intelligent to be shooting them down”.

Students learn how to use a pico balloon from Scientific Balloon Solutions (Scientific Balloon Solutions)
Students learn how to use a pico balloon from Scientific Balloon Solutions (Scientific Balloon Solutions)

In a phone interview with The Independent, Mr Meadows said it was “possible” that the objects shot down could have been balloons made by Scientific Balloon Solutions, but that he was unable to say for sure.

“You have to remember that these balloons are designed to carry extremely light payloads – ten to 20 grams – the size of a popsicle stick,” he said.

He added that the devices only send out their location and don’t have any cameras. “Our company is primarily for STEM education,” he said, noting that the intention is for students to learn about aviation and weather. “They pose no threat to any country ... I can’t stress that enough.”

Students learn how to use a balloon from Scientific Balloon Solutions on 17 February 2017 (Scientific Balloon Solutions)
Students learn how to use a balloon from Scientific Balloon Solutions on 17 February 2017 (Scientific Balloon Solutions)

“Our products are designed to fly at 43,000 feet, which is above the ... commercial air traffic,” he said, adding that “it’s hard to understand the thought process of shooting them down”.

But Mr Meadows said he “completely” understands the reasoning behind shooting down the Chinese spy balloon.

He said the balloons made by his company have been used since around 2015 and carry a 15-gram payload, a GPS tracker powered by solar panels, sending out the balloon’s coordinates, course, and speed.

Mr Meadows said there have been no complaints about the balloons before “all this hit the media,” adding that they’re “probably” part of “the UFO sightings”.

A solar-powered transmitter (Scientific Balloon Solutions)
A solar-powered transmitter (Scientific Balloon Solutions)

The unidentified objects taken down by the military match the descriptions and abilities of the pico balloons, which cost between $12 and $180, according to Aviation Week.

A retired engineer and podcast host, Tom Medlin, told the outlet that “I’m guessing probably they were pico balloons”.

He currently has three of them flying across the world.

“I have no information for you from NORAD on the objects ... I expect the NSC task force to have more on the potential identification of the objects,” a spokesperson for North American Aerospace Defense Command told The Independent.

Aviation Week noted that the National Security Council didn’t respond to requests for comment and that the FBI and the Office of the Secretary of Defense “did not acknowledge that harmless pico balloons are being considered as possible identities for the mystery objects shot down by the Air Force”. The Independent has reached out to the White House for comment.

Pico balloons weigh less than six pounds and are exempt from the FAA’s airspace restrictions.

A balloon carrying a solar-powered transmitter (California Near Space Project)
A balloon carrying a solar-powered transmitter (California Near Space Project)

Mr Medlin said that one of his balloons is set to enter US airspace on Friday.

“I hope that in the next few days when that happens, we’re not real trigger-happy and start shooting down everything,” he told Aviation Week.

During a brief speech on Thursday, President Joe Biden said the objects that were shot down were likely to be “balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions” and not connected to China’s espionage programme that launched a larger airship that flew through US airspace earlier this month.

Mr Biden said the US and Canada “acted in accordance with established parameters for determining how to deal with and fight aerial objects in US airspace” and that he was recommended to give the order that they be shot down, which he did, “due to hazards to civilian commercial air traffic, and because we could not rule out the surveillance risk of sensitive facilities”.

“Our military and the Canadian military are seeking to recover the debris so we can learn more about these three objects. Our intelligence committee is still assessing all three incidents. They’re reporting to me daily and will continue the urgent efforts to do so and I will communicate that to the Congress. We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were. But nothing right now suggests they were related to China‘s spy balloon programme, or they were surveillance vehicles from other any other country,” the president added.