Understanding the “spy balloon”

by Thomas Mundy-

It has been several weeks since the spy balloon from the People’s Republic of China was shot down by a United States jetfighter and lots of controversy has been stirred since the beginning. 

What started out as an apparent weather balloon gone astray from The People’s Republic of China has thrown the public into a frenzy, when United States officials announced that there were instruments on the aircraft that were capable of sending intelligence back over to the controllers. Scientists like Ella Atkins, department head of aerospace and ocean engineering at Virginia Tech, said that this reaction seems a little overboard.

“People are overreacting to the data that could possibly have been collected by this one spy balloon,” Atkins said. “The reality is, we have satellites in low earth orbit from countries all over the world.” 

American Flag and the Virginia Flag on the Virginia Tech Campus in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Thomas Mundy) February 16, 2023.

Airspace is more strict than what could be expected. A country owns the air above its country. This ownership leads all the way up to where the breathable atmosphere reaches non-breathable atmosphere according to Jamie McGrath, a retired Navy Captain involved in the Rice Center for Leader Development at Virginia Tech and the Corp of Cadets. 

“Primarily the airspace that we are talking about are spaces that air-breathing equipment can operate in, so think of airplanes,” McGrath said. “The airspace above a country is sovereign territory just like the land and then that sovereignty stretches out 12 nautical miles from the coastline.”

Engineering Students at Virginia Tech sanding their next project. (Thomas Mundy) February 16, 2023. Blacksburg, Va.

With this balloon, along with any other aircraft flying, it is required to gain permission from the country to fly over top of the territory according to McGrath. This is where the problems began for the balloon. Above the country, there are a plethora of flying objects moving through the atmosphere. Much of the things in the atmosphere are non-recognizable, like the bugs and birds that fly around. Then there is the man-made equipment sent out in the atmosphere, and if this equipment is not monitored, it can become hazardous to others in the same airspace according to Atkins. 

Currently, there have been multiple sightings of other alleged spy balloons. The major thought that Captain McGrath wants to get across is that, even though this seems to have turned into a foreign policy breach and national security issue, there are objects in the sky and in orbit around the Earth that are capable of this very incident, the only difference is that this balloon might have been able to stay in one spot longer than a passing satellite. 

“There are capabilities that fly over our nation and other nations, that I would say, are probably equal to, if not superior to, what could be hanging from a balloon,” McGrath said. “It might be able to loiter in a single location for a longer period of time, so instead of collecting information every time it passes overhead, it was potentially able to collect a larger volume of information while it was in one place.”

%d bloggers like this: