Did the US Military Take Out a $12 Hobbyist Balloon With a $400,000 Missile?

These “pico balloon” enthusiasts have their suspicions.

A US fighter jet. Both F-22s and F-16s have been used to shoot down objects in US and Canadian airspace in recent weeks.bfk92/Getty

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The United States has popped a whole bunch of balloons lately. Earlier this month, famously, an American fighter jet took out a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina with a Sidewinder missile. In the weeks to follow, American jets shot down three more objects floating high above the United States and Canada.

Some amateur balloon enthusiasts suspect that one of their small, inflatable devices may have been among those objects.

The Bottlecap Balloon Brigade, an Illinois hobbyist group, declared one of its balloons “missing in action” on February 15. It was last seen February 1o off the coast of Alaska, Aviation Week reported. Balloonist groups often launch such “pico balloons” for radio experiments or just for fun, Dave Akerman, of the UK High Altitude Society, told the Washington Post

The Brigade calculated that its balloon would have been floating over the Yukon Territory in Canada on February 11—the same day officials shot down an object in the area with an F-22. “When I heard that [it was a] silver object with a payload attached to it, that could be one of our balloons,” an anonymous member of the group told Politico.

“I tried contacting our military and the FBI—and just got the runaround—to try to enlighten them on what a lot of these things probably are. And they’re going to look not too intelligent to be shooting them down,” Ron Meadows, the founder of Scientific Balloon Solutions, a pico balloon supplier, told Aviation Week. Indeed, the type of balloons used by hobbyists can be had for as little as $12, the publication noted. Each AIM-9X Sidewinder missile costs up to about $400,000.  

The federal government has yet to confirm whether the object it shot down did, in fact, belong to the Bottlecappers. But on Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that intelligence officials believed the objects were “most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather, or conducting other scientific research.”

On Friday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said it may never be possible to link the downed object to the Brigade, Politico reports. “We haven’t recovered it so it’s very difficult until you can get your hands on something to be able to tell…we all have to accept the possibility that we may not be able to recover it.”

In the meantime, someone please buy these hobbyists a replacement.

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This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

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