For the past two years, the Northern Illinois Bottlecamp Balloon Brigade has been raising so-called pico balloons into the sky to research and observe high-altitude currents. The pride of the group is K9YO. The balloon, which is just 80 centimeters tall, has circled the earth six times. He was reported missing on February 14. By then, K9YO had been on the road for 123 days and 18 hours. It was last spotted almost 50 minutes after midnight on February 11 near the uninhabited island of Hagemeister off Alaska.
Hours later, Canadian and US authorities reported the shooting down of a mysterious flying object. It was one of three objects the US military brought down from the sky over the weekend. The military shot down two objects over the USA and Canada – one was hit over the Yukon off Alaska. Now there is increasing speculation that the vehicle could be the missing Illinois Balloon Brigade balloon. There is no information about this on the group's blog. And the US government and Canadian authorities have not yet spoken of a shot down pico balloon.
However, the US admitted that the downed aircraft were not part of a spy balloon fleet from China. There is also no evidence of espionage, National Security Council communications director John Kirby said on Tuesday. Instead, they could be commercial or scientific facility balloons, US President Joe Biden said. It cannot be ruled out that they are harmless. Where the objects come from remains unclear. The mission they were on is also uncertain. The remains of the balloons have still not been found.
Canada's Defense Minister Anita Anand said the object was traveling off the coast of Alaska at an altitude of 40,000 feet (about 12,000 meters). This corresponds to the altitude at which the amateur balloon K9YO from Illinois flew. Balloons of this type can fly up to 12,000 meters and thousands of them are on the move all over the world. Unlike weather balloons, it is about exploring and observing high-altitude currents.
The pico balloons can be launched legally in any country, if they exceed a certain size they need permission from the aviation authorities. The amateur radio balloons are equipped with small solar panels and a so-called Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) that automatically sends GPS, weather data or text messages.
K9YO was also equipped with a solar panel and GPS module, and weighed just over 16 grams. According to a Pentagon memo, one of the balloons shot down was said to be a "small metal balloon with a tethered payload" that posed a "reasonable threat to civil security " represented Defense Minister Anand said.
The route of the pico balloons can be tracked using various tools. The whereabouts of K9YO remain uncertain - depending on the tool, it may or may not be detectable.
Canada's defense minister told Politico newspaper: "I have heard that the FBI has spoken to this hobbyist group and I expect the [National Security Council's] task force to know more about the possible identification of the objects."
In a speech on Thursday, US President Joe Biden said the objects were still under investigation but they may not have come from China. But he didn't talk about pico balloons either.
In early February, the US military shot down a Chinese balloon and accused Beijing of espionage. China rejected the allegations and spoke of an overreaction by the United States. The balloon that was shot down was a research balloon from China that went far off course due to "force majeure".
After the incident, the North American Air Defense Command Norad adjusted the radar systems. You can now identify more objects, including those that are particularly small and flying high. Balloons like K9YO, whose remains are still being searched for, according to the US authorities.
Sources: Northern Illinois Bottlecamp Balloon Brigade, Washington Post, Politico, RTL-SDR.com, Sondehub.org, Locate and Track, with footage from DPA and AFP