February 04, 2023

Was the Chinese Balloon on A Spy Mission? Meteorologists Can Help Determine the Answer

There has been a lot of media coverage about the Chinese balloon that has been flying over the U.S., and which was shot down today.

Was it a spy balloon deliberately flown over the U.S., or was it an errant weather/research balloon?

Meteorologists with modern analysis tools can help answer the question.


The balloon was initially discovered at around 60,000 ft above Billings, Montana.

A key issue was whether this balloon was being controlled actively by China or drifting with the winds as claimed by Chinese authorities.

So understanding the path taken by the balloon is important.  Could this have happened by "accident"?

 NOAA has a wonderful system called Hyplit that allows one to calculate air trajectories over time.   (An air trajectory is the three-dimensional path of an air parcel over time).  You can think of an air parcel as the air inside a balloon.

Hysplit allows one to calculate back-trajectories, which tell one where some air at a point came from.  So we can start from a point at 60,000 ft over Montana and trace back the air reaching that point.

If an air parcel over Montana can be traced back to China, it could be an errant balloon.  If not, then the balloon had to be controlled, ascending or descending to put the balloon in different wind environments, thus allowing the craft to move in various directions.

Well, here are the backward trajectories for air over Billings at several elevations (16000 18,000, and 20,000 meters) at 2 PM on February 1.   18,000 meters is about 60000 ft.   The air trajectory ending at 60,000 ft (again 18,000 meters) did pass over southern China at an elevation of around 20,000 meters (66,000 ft).   Air parcels ending up higher over Montana could be traced back to the California coast.


What about trajectories ending up at lower elevations over Montana (10,000, 12000, and 14000 meters), roughly 33,000 to 46,000 ft? They started over China as well (see below).


Lower-level trajectories?  Only one ending at 8000 meters over Billings could have originated in China.

So was this some kind of accident?   

Chinese meteorologists would have known that any balloon released over China for a range of elevations would have reached the U.S.   And they could have selected where in the U.S. by moving the balloon up and down, or choosing different locations in China. 

If the balloon was launched with no ability to control height, they knew it would reach the US once it got to 8000 meters or more.  If they had up-and-down control (which one might assume considering the size and instrumentation on the balloon), they easily could have avoided reaching the U.S. by bringing the balloon down to lower elevations.

I will let you judge whether this was an accident.

13 comments:

  1. Thanks for the article! The balloon was previously tracked traveling over Alaska and Canada, pretty much following the jet stream. So no need to start the backward tracking at the Montana location, previous locations are known, but it still makes for an interesting discussion. Another possibility is that they lost control of their aircraft, because otherwise it's a very clumsy attempt at gathering information readily available elsewhere.

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  2. The entire thing is reminiscent of the Japanese exploding balloons during WWII, an absurd attempt with do-nothing potential. If the Chinese want to collect data from altitude, satellites are the solution. Floating balloons that randomly end up in indeterminable locations is an absurd method, unless you want to take some random photos of the landscape, which could be done just as easily from with an airplane ticket from Seattle to Chicago. They aren't so stupid. So, the only solution to this absurd story is psyop/conveniently timed distraction.

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    1. Agreed. This was just another finger in the eye of the current administration, the CCP knows how to humiliate their adversaries. This tactic is one of their most convenient forms of distraction in order to deflect their citizen's increasing anger over their COVID policies and economic stagnation. However, in this case (as in their belligerent statements regarding an invasion of Taiwan), the old tactics don't appear to be working this time.

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    2. The families of 5 Sunday school children and a 26 year old pregnant woman in Bly Oregon might beg to differ with you about the Japanese balloon bombs being "an absurb attempt with do nothing potential." On May 5, 1945 they were killed by a balloon bomb on a Sunday school outing. Bly is a few miles east of Klamath Falls in southern Oregon. These were the only civilians to die by enemy hands in the continental United States.
      https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/1945-japanese-balloon-bomb-killed-six-americansfive-them-children-oregon-180972259/

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    3. Apparently a finger in the eye of the previous administration, too, as it's been reported that at least three Chinese balloons overflew the U.S. during the Trump years.

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    4. Your post about prior balloons overflying the US is incorrect, that false flag has already been shot down by numerous independent sources.

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    5. Back then the public would have thought the balloons were dropping COVID by aerosol. Might have been a better play to just let that slide.

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    6. It definitely seems like balloons flew over the US during Trump's time in office and once earlier in Biden's term as well. All reputable sources, Fox included, have published stories to this effect (within the last few hours even - I just checked and found new articles from CBS, Politico, The Hill etc., all verifying reports of earlier balloon shenanigans. I realize that he refutes this but it seems like the evidence leans toward earlier incursions by Chinese balloons

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    7. Those are not "reputable sources." Those are pop news paid for by clickbait advertising. NOAA would be a source. DoD would be a source.

      Claiming, "there were earlier overflights but we just now found out about them, and oh, yes, the previous president wasn't told," suggests either it never happened, or if it did, they were just weather balloons and it's an evasion.

      The people I know who actually work in intel are refusing to make any comment whatsoever. So we don't actually have any confirmation of prior incidents, just clickbait.

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  3. If it's innocent than China perhaps could have informed the FAA. "Hey, friendly heads up, we lost control of our perfectly benign, innocent balloon. As harmless as the old man's house from the movie "Up". Harmless until the thing starts to come down, perhaps?

    Apparently, that did not happen. Any aircraft needs permission to enter airspace at least for safety's sake. Especially if it involves governments that are not on the best of terms with each other. China had a chance to extend an olive branch. They did not, and even went as far as to be insulted and threatening after it was shot down.

    SNL's spoof covered it pretty well actually from a common sense standpoint but if some large, dangerous out of control object enters someone's airspace AND ITS KNOWN, as a courtesy...maybe tell them? Don't wait until it has to be figured out from a military position. So this was either a missed opportunity for a peaceful overture, or China was indeed being naughty and got caught.

    Stop giving China a hall pass on this. It's well known how many believe that EVERY world event is really the USG finding more ways to screw over the masses but other nation's governments also behave badly.

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    1. Exactly. No call, no flight file, no IFF transponder. It's at best grossly negligent, at worst an attempt at gauging response.

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  4. It weighs more than 2,000 pounds...

    "The Chinese suspected spy balloon the U.S. shot down Saturday was huge — about 200 feet tall, carrying an array of equipment the size of a regional airliner and weighing more than 2,000 pounds — but North American air defenses still missed previous balloon flights over U.S. territory, Gen. Glen VanHerck said Monday."

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  5. Is there any update about the issue?

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Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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