Scientist weighs in on balloon
Last updated 2/7/2023 at Noon
Steven Peterzen has had a busy week.
Peterzen, who has lived in Sisters for more than decade, is the founder and owner of ISTAR Stratospheric Ballooning. ISTAR launches and recovers payloads for scientific and technological experiments for agencies, companies, and academic institutions. He has worked with Sisters’ science classes to launch balloons from Sisters Eagle Airport.
With deep expertise and more than three decades of experience in the field, he’s been fielding phone calls from all over the world over the past week, from colleagues seeking to understand what has been happening with a Chinese balloon that traversed the U.S. before being shot down by a missile fired by an F-22 fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina.
The incident, which played out over several days, led to the cancellation of a scheduled trip by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to meet with Chinese officials to ease growing tensions in the U.S.-China relationship. The U.S. has defined the craft as a “surveillance balloon,” and issued a statement asserting that “the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law. It is unacceptable this occurred.”
Peterzen doesn’t think the flight was worth an international incident.
“Somebody launched a balloon,” Peterzen said. “My history and experience is telling me that they lost communication with it, and it drifted… I think it’s much ado about very little.”
Peterzen says there are better methods for spying than a balloon operating at 60,000 feet, which is low for this type of craft (and also readily shot down, where a higher-altitude balloon would cost millions of dollars to take out). And, he noted, losing communications and control is not uncommon. He noted that last year the French lost communications with a balloon launched in Ontario, Canada, that flew over New York City and then out into the Atlantic .
“Who heard of it?” he said. “I only heard of it because I’m in the industry. There’s hundreds of balloons launched around the world every day and you don’t hear anything about it.”
He noted that “most balloons that are launched are for research. They’re not for spying or looking down on anything.”
Because of tensions with China, this particular incident created a lot more interest than normal.
Peterzen acknowledged that there are issues with the way the launch was conducted. Whenever he has done a launch, he has had to file a Notice to Air Mission (NOTAM) alerting any country that the balloon will fly over. And some countries are very sensitive about the presence of any down-looking cameras.
As far as Peterzen can tell, the balloon launch in question did not file a NOTAM.
He notes that, since the 1950s, the U.S. has “seen” anything flying toward the U.S., and he believes that U.S. officials knew very soon after launch that it was headed this way and at an apparently relatively fixed and low altitude.
“If that is true, that it came to the U.S. at that altitude, they could have shot that thing down in Alaska,” Peterzen said.
He said he would have preferred that the U.S. let it go and chart its trajectory. He said that people in his line of work could have put up a “constellation of small balloons” to get a good look at the Chinese craft.
So, if the balloon was not a “surveillance balloon” as the U.S. government has asserted, what was its purpose?
Over-the-horizon communication with a balloon requires communication via satellite.
“What they could have been doing was testing the capability of their satellite system,” Peterzen said.
One theory is that the Chinese used the balloon to test the viability of its use in an EMP attack. A nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack could come at high altitude and generate radiation that could knock out the electrical grid, with catastrophic results.
Peterzen is skeptical that this is what this balloon was up to. Why tip off the U.S. to the capability with a balloon that could be seen from the ground?
There is the possibility that the balloon flight was an effort to “tickle our feet,” he said, an effort to get our attention and test our reaction.
But Peterzen sticks to his belief that the incident was a simple mistake or failure.
“My guess is that there’s a bunch of students sitting in Beijing saying, ‘Oh (expletive deleted) we just lost our jobs.’”