It's a brisk December morning at Spaceport Tucson, America's premiere (only?) dedicated launch pad for stratospheric balloons, and a small army of technicians in reflective vests is milling around on the concrete and dethawing after a long, cold night. Nearby, a white metal tripod the size of a smart car is tethered to two dozen solar panels and hundreds of feet of clear plastic that stretches across the pad. This alien-looking contraption is referred to as a "stratollite," a portmanteau of "stratospheric satellite," operated by a company called World View Enterprises. It's a finely honed surveillance device outfitted with a suite of sensors and a camera sensitive enough to detect people standing on the ground from the edge of space. The stratollite travels by virtue of two balloons, one filled with helium to provide lift, and the other with pressurized air, which functions as a steering system.
For most people, balloons may connote birthday parties, weddings, parades, or on a less celebratory note, meteorology. But, if one new startup has its way, sweeping surveillance may soon make that list too. World View Enterprises Inc., based in Arizona, is working to build what it's calling Stratollites -- balloon mounted-surveillance systems that the company claims can be remotely controlled and adjusted using its own proprietary technology. In an test of unprecedented length, a World View balloon safely completed a 16-day mission, navigating above states in the Western U.S. The feat, says the company, is a major mile marker in the goal of keeping the devices afloat for months at a time. Balloons could be the new method of surveillance according to one Arizona startup, World View.
Six states will act as a testing ground for a new wave of balloon-based surveillance beacons which are backed by the U.S. military. Documents filed with the FCC and obtained by The Guardian detail an initiative to launch up to 25 unmanned solar balloons that will rove 250 miles across the central U.S. According to the documents, they will '[c]onduct high altitude... tests over South Dakota to provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats.' Tests will be conducted by US Southern Command (Southcom), an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. The Guardian reports that balloons are equipped with sensitive radar technology capable of tracking vehicles through inclement weather and during both day and night. According to the report, one radar device is capable of capturing the motion of every car in a 25-mile radius. The breadth of the surveillance will allow the military to track where vehicles come from, essentially'rewinding the tape' on people's movements according to one expert interview by the outlet.
Stratospheric balloons are a low-cost way to get above 99% of the atmosphere. Payloads lifted that high have wide views of Earth and clear views of the stars. For decades, NASA has launched a handful of stratospheric balloons every year. Although they float for months, they drift at constant altitudes. Now, upstart commercial companies like World View are launching smaller balloons that can remain in place by surfing stratospheric winds.
It's much easier to shoot for the moon when it's on the ground, rolling toward you. A giant moon-shaped balloon, caught in the winds of Typhoon Meranti blew through the streets of Fuzhou, China, this morning. The balloon was initially a part of a display installed outside of a shopping mall to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival on Thursday, reports Buzzfeed. Huge moon balloon blown away in Fuzhou, E China, as #TyphoonMeranti approaches. This balloon was spotted rolling over cars and people as it was lifted throughout the town.