Submitted by aggasalk t3_10sr3w2 in askscience

I guess it's obvious what I'm referring to, i.e. current events over Montana.

The thing is up in the stratosphere, higher than most planes (and certainly rotor/propeller aircraft) can reach.

I haven't found any discussion of this question online, and I'm sorry if this isn't strictly a 'science' question but there is an "Engineering" flair, so I'm giving it a shot.

How could a device like this be brought down without destroying it (as I understand it's hard enough to destroy it)? What means are available for capturing a large high-altitude balloon carrying a ton of electronics equipment?

edit 2 days later

It sounds like the answer is "wait till it's over the ocean, pop the balloon with a missile fired from an F-22, then pick the wreckage out of the water".



You must log in or register to comment.

EndlessEmergency t1_j738ot4 wrote

It's reportedly at around 66,000 feet, which is only 1,000 feet above the declared maximum altitude of an F-15. Using the F-15s cannon on it, one could perforate the balloon and cause it to lose lift gas, which would end in a gradual descent. Even if the balloon were to fully deflate, it would act as a huge source of drag (much like a parachute) and prevent the payload from free falling.


OskaMeijer t1_j75pb11 wrote

I mean, it is good that it wouldn't fall at terminal velocity but I feel like something the size of a bus falling at even 1/4 of that speed could be pretty devastating to whatever it hits.


jrob323 t1_j777gje wrote

The F-15s M61 cannon sprays 20mm shells at 4000-6000 rounds per minute and they travel at high velocity for miles. You'd have to be extremely careful about picking an unpopulated area to do this over. I doubt any air-to-air missiles would lock onto this thing (I'm certainly no expert). And as you pointed out, this thing is beyond an F-15s service ceiling, so it would be risky. A U2 or other recon aircraft could easily reach that altitude, but they have no weapons.

Maybe they're planning to get more aggressive/creative when it's over the Atlantic.


rootofallworlds t1_j74gy9s wrote

I agree with other answers that puncturing the balloon and letting the payload fall to a lower altitude for capture would be the way to go. I don't think it would be reliable though because the balloon does not have a designed grab point like various re-entering space capsules have had.

That said, the Lockheed U-2 is still in service and has a service ceiling of 80,000 feet or more. There are some high-altitude drones that get into the 70,000 feet range, such as the Airbus Zephyy. Although I don't know what such an aircraft could actually do about a balloon. Trailing a grappling hook seems a bit too Looney Tunes to work.


CompetitiveYou2034 t1_j74pe90 wrote

> .... Would {not} be reliable because the balloon does not have a designated grab point .....

Historical fact - well trained pilots made it work. Over 50 successful captures of film canisters ejected under a parachute. See KH8 Gambit


CompetitiveYou2034 t1_j73ois3 wrote

Puncture the balloon, let it descend slowly, capture it via a plane trailing extended hooks.

Recap: a historical feat of pilot derring do!

Before we had high speed digital communication with our spy satellites, before we had digital cameras with megapixel lenses ....

1960s - 1980s, US spy satellites took high resolution pictures on actual film.
When a film canister was complete, or had time urgent info, it was ejected under a parachute.
A specially modified plane was waiting, that trailed a long wire with a v-shape, or hooks, which snagged the parachute canopy.
The plane reeled in the wire. Picked up the canister, and flew to have the film processed.
Example: KH-8 Gambit 3 satellite.

Same thing can be done with Chinese spy balloon.

The Chinese payload is a bigger than a film canister, but the capture plane can still fly it's payload for a soft-ish landing, dropped from say 50 feet onto a fireman's jumper rescue inflated balloon.

Seems very fitting, capture a payload from a balloon, drop it onto another balloon.


LightningRodofH8 t1_j77oq96 wrote

I heard the balloon is carrying 1000lb of equipment.

A film canister on a parachute is a long ways away from that.

>One official said the sensor package the balloon is carrying weighs as much as 1,000 pounds. The balloon is large enough and high enough in the air that the potential debris field could stretch for miles, with no control over where it would eventually land.


CompetitiveYou2034 t1_j78jst4 wrote

[Moot response, written after balloon is popped over the Atlantic ocean.]

> The balloon is carrying 1,000 lbs of equipment ....

The capture planes were cargo aircraft that carry many tons. 1,000 lbs would not be a problem, dragged by a wire behind a heavy lifter.

Unfortunately for today's events, those capture planes are in a bone graveyard or sold for scrap. Worse, the pilots trained in such maneuvers are long retired or gone.

If it was deemed needed, the Air Force could easily recreate the 1960s air skyhook capability.

My predictions are:

-- the Chinese will not be brazen enough to repeat the spy balloon anytime soon. Therefore. no need to recreate skyhook.

-- if they do send another, the US will shoot it down in Alaska or over the Pacific ocean as it enters US adiz.


ares5404 t1_j78y8kb wrote

Have drone models of current fighters, programmed with auto-targeting of these things, preferably they will have found something smaller that is capable of refuel with the main fighter and fly in formation with other roles


CompetitiveYou2034 t1_j73mstz wrote

Important question regarding the Chinese spy balloon.

How does it report back info?

Surely it was not planned to store the info, and then continue round the world, or return flight over the Arctic or the Pacific Ocean!

We should physically capture it to determine it's communication method(s), encryption, etc.

If this was truly quote a civilian meteorological platform that went off course, the Chinese can have no complaint to our examining it.


aggasalk OP t1_j73t0nl wrote

probably just radio signals through satellites, which you'd think would be used whatever the purpose (military, scientific)


UpintheExosphere t1_j73r5kp wrote

Actually, some stratospheric research balloons do just store info and then are recovered after they descend. It really just depends on the balloon. They may not be able to transmit very far and signal is lost after a certain point, or maybe the data is too large for the amount of bandwidth, etc.


thecasterkid t1_j74k03r wrote

I mean... couldn't you just use another balloon to interact with it? If this one is supposedly 'controllable' then we have some that are... and it's not like you need to retrieve the whole thing, just the payload. This seems like a super fun project some of the bright minds in colleges and military branches and contractors could solve.


LightningRodofH8 t1_j77q6k8 wrote

Balloons aren't precise enough to try to capture something at 65k feet.

They control their direction via wind currents.


Mowenatl t1_j77h3p7 wrote

A skyhook on a high altitude plane / drone could easily capture it.

Bottom line is the US would rather use it as propaganda / a public spectacle than take it down. The US has had all important / classified military infrastructure hidden below ground since the prevalence of satellites.

If the US wanted to take it down they could have easily done so before it was over mainland USA. Even our older, declassified, radar arrays can detect baseball sized objects thousands of miles away. Presumably our latest Gen systems, meant to detect the launch of hypersonic weapons, could have detected it right when it was lifting off.


w2ltp t1_j7b4u32 wrote

You are technically correct, but still wrong. The balloon's altitude was way too high for this method.


Mowenatl t1_j7lxgty wrote

You can use one or two balloons which are attached to a tow line deployed from the back of a plane that has sufficient power to drag the balloon and equipment down. You loop or entangle your target balloon, deflate yours, reel the target ballon in, then pop/ deflate it when it’s close to the ground / aircraft.

Maybe I should have called it reverse skyhook as clarification.


TjW0569 t1_j77gtfx wrote

We used to have a 747 with a laser system.

Toward the end of that article, it mentioned a lower power, higher altitude drone version to fly in 2021. Maybe the Chinese were hoping for a capability demo.


Zaphod703 t1_j7iegxv wrote

Thank you for this topic!! I have been thinking of this since hearing of this situation and still surprised No One is talking about it on the news (that I heard).

I'll have to fully read this thread to get a better grasp. And if anyone has any articles/papers to read, I'd love to know them.

Emphasis I know Nothing about all this. Engineering and Altitudes, nothing lol. What I was curious about would a high altitude balloon parachute be able to work with this? I saw that mentioned researching high altitude balloons. I wasnt sure if there was a way to attach it to the balloon to help with the decent?

Its just hard to believe that we didn't atleast try something to do a controlled decent to capture it mostly intact. With everything the government and private sector have. But please excuse any stupidity on my part with any of this, lol still far more I need to learn about this.


talking9 t1_j7h6cyv wrote

Blasting the device to pieces destroys the evidence to prove whether it is a weather balloon or a spy balloon.

Perhaps it's time to develop a way to capture a balloon mid air for future incidents.

On the other hand, blasting the balloon makes for a good show and keeps the argument whether it is a weather balloon or a spy balloon alive.


ngmreddit t1_j7huc6s wrote

Was the altitude too great for the Fulton Skyhook? Featured in James Bond and Batman and it's actually real with versions previously fitted to B-17s and C-130s. Takes an EXTREMELY skilled pilot and crew to pulloff. Possibly more skilled than Batman and Bond combined.


Wayelder t1_j7kw4c0 wrote

okay, now the serious stuff.

Could a small missile carry a parachute payload that could explode gently or "pop" against the balloon, emptying the balloons' envelope? It would strike, burst and ideally entangle the balloon and then have a tethered payload of a remotely opened parachute package?


SuperSyrias t1_j72zks0 wrote

honestly, just have drones attach weights with magnets and glue. at some point the thing cant keep floating and will sink.

or have a helicopter put a net over it thats has weights.

or simply puncture the balloon. it wont explode and it wont immediately drop like dead weight.


aggasalk OP t1_j72zvyf wrote

i don't think helicopters or drones can get up to 60,000 feet...


ShrimpFriedMyRice t1_j738sen wrote

Helicopters, drones, and bullets cannot reach the balloon. A fighter jet might be able to if it's a specialized one with tech we don't know about. For reference, the F16 can only hit 50k feet and the SR71 can hit 85k feet. Weather balloons can be as high as 120k feet.

The reason the US hasn't done anything is probably a combination of damage on the ground, the fact that satellites exist and could probably do way more Intel gathering than a balloon drifting in the wind, and that by destroying the balloon we've shown the world how we deal with that situation.

The element of surprise is huge and if your enemy doesn't know how you'll answer and react to certain situations, it makes them nervous. By destroying the balloon, we show China and the world our capabilities and response. It's better to keep them guessing and ignore it.


WealthyMarmot t1_j75au0h wrote

The F-22 and F-15 can both hit 65,000 ft. Hence why the USAF investigated using F-22s, according to the first news reports.


qwertyshark t1_j75ofu0 wrote

Just checked google and F15 ceiling limit shows as 50.000ft is there something I’m missing?


WealthyMarmot t1_j75ti4z wrote

Not sure what you're seeing, but 65,000 can be found on the USAF page for the F-15, which also matches up with what I've seen elsewhere. Most modern twin-engine fighters are in the same ballpark, including the F-22, Eurofighter Typhoon, China's J-15 and Russia's SU-35.


paranoiamachine t1_j732v68 wrote

Wow. Do we know approximately big it is, then? It's gotta be huge to be as visible as it is from that height.


CompetitiveYou2034 t1_j73wyop wrote

The balloon part must be large, to reliably stay aloft for a ten thousand mile (?) voyage, and haul say 100 lbs (?) payload.

We only care about the spy payload, which might be quite small.

Very sure the US Air Force is closely examining this, and has a sense of it's actual size.


unskilledplay t1_j74dmod wrote

ISS has an end-to-end width of about a football field orbits at 1.2M feet hight, 20 times further away than this balloon. Yet anyone can take a photo of it from their own back yard.


SuperSyrias t1_j730jf7 wrote

ah.. didnt know it was that high. k... leaves the "make a hole" bit, then.