Spy balloon spotted in the United States: these high-altitude airships are increasingly used

While observation of the battlefield from a balloon has been practiced since the creation of hot air balloons in the 19th century, today the novelty is that very high altitude balloons are built. United States and Canada claim to have spotted Chinese spy balloons in recent weeks. This Friday, January 3, China has “regret” the entrance “involuntary” of an unmanned balloon in United States airspace. The threat is taken very seriously. Anthony Blinken, the American Secretary of State, decided, after this incident, to postpone his visit to China.

These aerial devices generally fly at an altitude of more than 20 kilometers, this is twice as high as the cruising altitude of commercial aircraft and beyond the limit of aeronautical sovereignty of the States. These balloons look like airships. They are powered by long-lasting batteries or solar panels. They are capable of lifting a payload of at least 50 kg and up to 250 kg.

Able to read a vehicle license plate

These spy balloons can thus support optical or electronic warfare equipment capable, for the finest, of obtaining extremely precise images of the ground. Some can thus read the license plate of a vehicle or monitor much larger areas than the sensors of spy satellites can do. They are stationary and can therefore observe a site permanently, where a satellite in orbit around the earth passes over a given area only one to three times every 24 hours.

These balloons are relatively large: the balloon observed above the United States is the size “of three buses”, said the staff of the US Air Force. On a clear day, they can be observed with the naked eye, but they are not necessarily detectable by conventional radars which only rarely reach these very high altitudes.

Flights at an altitude of more than 20 kilometers outside international law

China claims that this balloon was “a civil aircraft used for research purposes, primarily meteorological”. For the United States, on the other hand, it is a spy operation.. In any case, this Chinese device was spotted over the United States, but it was not operating in American airspace… The sovereignty of States in the atmosphere does indeed stop at ” level 660″, as the pilots say; at 66,000 feet or 20 km altitude. Beyond 20 kilometers, in the middle of the stratosphere, the devices are normally free to fly – provided they can do so with special engines for a jet – without having to answer to anyone. American spy planes of the 60s and 70s such as the U2 can thus fly between 23 and 25 km in altitude.

This air zone located between 20 and 100 kilometers high, where these balloons can park, is not today governed by any international rules. Several armies are preparing for this “very high altitude” war, including the French army. It should be noted that the area above which the Chinese balloon was spotted in Montana includes the Malmstrom military base, one of the three American bases where the silos of the Minuteman intercontinental nuclear missiles are located.

If States are more and more interested in these balloons, it is also because of their cost. The simple launch of a “small” satellite, weighing less than 150 kg, is still offered at $ 2,250,000 by SpaceX, the aerospace company of Elon Musk, the cheapest on this market. On the other hand, a balloon inflated with pressurized helium does not require any effort to fly away.

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