An Illinois-based club of amateur balloonists says one of its small balloons is “missing in action” after last reporting its location over Alaska on Saturday, the same day the U.S. military shot down an unidentified object in the same region.
While the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade (NIBBB) has not blamed the U.S. government for taking out one of its 32-inch-wide “Pico Balloons,” the group of hobbyists notes in a post on its blog that its last transmission near a small island off the west coast of Alaska occurred after the balloon had been airborne for more than four months and circled the globe seven times.
“Pico Balloon K9YO last reported on February 11th at 00:48 zulu near Hagemeister Island after 123 days and 18 hours of flight,” the NIBBB blog post, dated February 14, states.
Over the last three weeks, U.S. President Joe Biden has ordered fighter jets to shoot down three objects detected in U.S. air space — a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast as well as smaller unidentified objects over Alaska and Lake Huron. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week ordered another object to be shot down over the Yukon; a U.S. fighter jet carried out that mission.
Biden said they were eliminated because authorities considered they posed a threat to aviation, although some observers say the downings were an overreaction amid political pressure over the discovery of the Chinese balloon.
The Illinois brigade’s membership is a “small group of pico balloon enthusiasts” which has been operating since June 2021, according to its website.
It says pico balloons have a 32in diameter and 100in circumference, and they have a cruising altitude between 32,000 and 50,000ft, a similar range to commercial aircraft. They contain trackers, solar panels and antenna packages lighter than a small bird, and the balloons are filled using less than a cubic foot of gas. According to Aviation Week, they are small hobby balloons starting at about $12 that allow enthusiasts to combine their interests in high-altitude ballooning and ham radio in an affordable way.
U.S. government officials have yet to definitively identify the objects, but Biden said Thursday that they were probably balloons linked to private companies, weather researchers or hobbyists.
If that is what happened, it would mean the US military expended a missile costing $439,000 (£365,000) to fell an innocuous hobby balloon worth about $12 (£10).