A small balloon launched by the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade (NIBBB) has been reported missing in action since February 15, according to a report from Aviation Week.
However, the balloon has emerged as a possible explanation for one of the three mystery objects shot down by U.S. Air Force fighters in recent days.
The NIBBB’s silver-coated, party-style, “pico balloon” was last detected at an altitude of 38,910 ft. off the west coast of Alaska on February 10, and a forecasting tool projected the cylindrical object would be floating high over the central part of the Yukon Territory on February 11.
This is the same day that a Lockheed Martin F-22 shot down an unidentified object of a similar description and altitude in the same general area.
The small pico balloons are part of a relatively affordable hobby that combines ham radio and high-altitude ballooning.
Ron Meadows, the founder of Scientific Balloon Solutions (SBS), a Silicon Valley company that makes purpose-built pico balloons for hobbyists, educators and scientists, attempted to contact the military and FBI to enlighten them on what he believes these objects are.
Other prominent members of the pico-ballooning enthusiasts’ community also suspect that the mystery objects shot down by the Air Force may have been pico balloons.
Aviation Week reached out to various government agencies, including the FBI, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the National Security Council (NSC), and the Office of the Secretary of Defense for comment about the possibility of pico balloons.
The NSC did not respond to repeated requests, while the FBI and OSD did not acknowledge that harmless pico balloons are being considered as possible identities for the mystery objects shot down by the Air Force.
Pico balloons have become popular in the past decade.
These balloons carry an 11-gram tracker on a tether, along with HF and VHF/UHF antennas to update their positions to ham radio receivers around the world.
The balloons can come in several forms, with some enthusiasts using common Mylar party balloons, while others use foil balloons sold by Japanese company Yokohama for $12.
The pico-ballooning community is anxious about the negative attention from some members of Congress and the White House, who have called the objects shot down at altitudes of 20,000-40,000 ft. dangerous to civil aviation.
The pico balloons weigh less than 6 lb. and are therefore exempt from most FAA airspace restrictions.
However, three countries—North Korea, Yemen, and the UK—restrict transmissions from balloons in their airspace.
As a result, the community has integrated geofencing software into the tracking devices.
There are concerns that the balloons could be shot down next.
One of Tom Medlin’s balloons is projected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s HYSPLIT model to enter US airspace on February 17.
Although the balloon has already circumnavigated the globe several times, its trajectory last carried the object over China before it will enter either Mexican or U.S. airspace.
Medlin hopes that the U.S. will not be “real trigger-happy and start shooting down everything.”