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Hobbyists are missing a ‘pico balloon.’ Did a U.S. fighter jet shoot it down?

Jet fighters fly over clouds. (Getty Images)
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Everyone seems worried about balloons right now. The Pentagon announcement that a fighter jet downed a Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic Ocean this month has renewed attention to what’s in our skies, and the military shot down three other aerial objects last week. The White House even had to assert that there were no signs the objects were linked to aliens.

Balloon hobbyists, meanwhile, are also worried for other reasons — that the small balloons they launch into the sky could be shot down or that the focus on balloons could lead to tight restrictions on their little-known hobby.

Speculation has grown about whether one of the unidentified objects taken down by a U.S. F-22 on Feb. 11 over Canada’s Yukon Territory was a small party-style balloon launched by a hobby group whose name is a whimsical reference to the children’s film “Up.”

The Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade recently said one of its balloons went “missing in action” on Feb. 11, near an island off the coast of Alaska. Then questions emerged after Aviation Week reported that, based on the last-known location and forecasting models, the balloon was predicted to have been floating over Yukon on the day the F-22 shot down a mysterious object. Politico has also reported that the FBI spoke with the group.

Security threat or hot air? A guide to high-altitude balloons.

The Illinois-based group launches hydrogen-filled balloons that have GPS tracking and antennas, and can rise up to 47,000 feet, according to its website. It has not linked the fate of its missing balloon, which it launched months ago, to the shoot-down in Canadian airspace, and did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Many balloons are probably soaring overhead at any given moment, for purposes from monitoring weather to gathering intelligence, but hobbyists worldwide also launch balloons into the sky, including small ones referred to as “pico balloons.”

Balloon hobbyists have said it was possible the object blown to smithereens by an F-22 was a GPS-tracked party balloon.

People launch balloons for radio experiments, or as part of projects to learn more about technology, balloons and the sky — as well as for fun, according to Dave Akerman, a member of the U.K. High Altitude Society who has launched nearly 100 larger latex balloons. Now enthusiasts are concerned “there will be a knee-jerk reaction to what’s happened,” he said in an interview.

He said he hoped that authorities and hobbyists could coordinate on reasonable guidelines or rules if needed. “It’s also in the interests of authorities not to be shooting down party balloons with missiles.”

While the evidence remains circumstantial in the case of the incident over Yukon, “what they described sounds exactly like these pico balloons,” he added.

The week Biden had to decide whether to shoot down mysterious objects

“The plastic balloons will stay up for several months, during which time they’ll circumnavigate the globe and then eventually the wind and weather get to them,” he said. While it depends on the size and weight, the small, light balloons typically don’t require permission from authorities for launching, he added.

President Biden has sought to reassure Americans that the three objects shot down last week, after the Chinese balloon, did not appear linked to foreign surveillance programs. He said Thursday that intelligence officials think “these objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research.”

Biden says latest aerial objects likely unrelated to Chinese spying

U.S. officials have yet to recover remnants of the object shot in Canadian skies, after the Pentagon chief said it was “absolutely important” to recover debris. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Thursday that while search efforts continued, conditions were “extremely challenging” in mountainous terrain and harsh winter weather.

The Pentagon said it had no updates to provide as of Friday morning. The FBI could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

The detection of the Chinese balloon has also prompted the U.S. military, which usually looks for threats such as missiles, to adjust its radar filters to detect smaller or slower objects that would normally be filtered out. That could partly answer why other objects were later identified in quick succession.

Helier Cheung, Dan Lamothe and Pranshu Verma contributed to this report.

More on the flying objects shot down over U.S., Canada

The latest: U.S. fighter jets have shot four objects out of the sky over North America this month. The first object, a balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, was Chinese. Biden said Thursday the three other objects did not so far appear to have connections to foreign surveillance programs.

The first balloon: The first object was linked by the U.S. intelligence community to a vast surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army. Here’s a timeline of the balloon’s journey across the United States and photos of the recovery.

The response from China: China’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. has sent at least 10 unsanctioned balloons into Chinese airspace since last year. China accused the United States of an “overreaction” and reiterated claims that the airship was a civilian vessel that drifted off course.

Why use a spy balloon? Spy balloons “offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at Cornell, tells us. The Defense Department told Congress that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace before, and a top U.S. general said past incursions by Chinese balloons went undetected by the Pentagon.