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Why the Chinese spy balloon differs from a weather balloon

The People's Republic of China claimed the recent spy balloon was used exclusively for weather research.

MOLINE, Ill. — Did you have a Chinese spy balloon on your 2023 bingo card? I know I didn't and I'm sure many of you didn't either. I've had quite a few emails regarding the balloon and how it compares to a balloon that we use for weather observations. 

Could a 'weather balloon' travel to the US from China and would it behave the way this 'weather balloon' is behaving?

U.S. officials, including the Pentagon, have confirmed that the balloon spotted across the Midwest last week was indeed a spy balloon that originated from China. The balloon itself was 200 feet tall with a payload that weighed at least a couple thousand pounds. This is vastly different from any type of balloon that would be used for meteorological purposes. 

Credit: WQAD
weather balloons have a very limited lifespan in the atmosphere compared to spy balloons.

There are several different features between the two balloons that make them quite distinguishable. Let's break them down for a better understanding. 

Time in the Sky

A typical weather balloon can only survive for around one to two hours, reaching a similar height to the recent spy balloon, around 60,000 feet. Weather balloons begin with a width of about six feet before expanding to nearly 20 feet wide once they reach the stratosphere. At this point, the balloon can no longer expand and it explodes, sending the instrument package plummeting back to Earth.

Length of Travel

Because weather balloons spend a brief time in the sky, they don't travel more than one hundred miles on average. They are at the mercy of the upper-level wind patterns. With the spy balloon, it had been floating in the atmosphere above portions of the United States since Tuesday, Jan. 31, traveling thousands of miles away from its original launch point.  


Weather balloons are launched twice per day from various locations in the United States, including right here in the Quad Cities. These give meteorologists a 'profile' of the atmosphere, telling us everything from temperatures to pressure. Attached to the balloon is a small, lightweight data pack about the size of a small book that takes these readings. 

Credit: NOAA

While we don't yet fully know exactly what the spy balloon was collecting while making its way across the United States, we do know that it was equipped with some ability to navigate itself and it also had a significant payload attached that was the size of three school busses, according to U.S. officials

It's widely known that spy satellites exist, however, former U.S. Government officials believe that a surveillance balloon is more capable of gathering higher-resolution images, and in some cases, up to 22 times more information than a satellite because of its closer proximity to the ground and the fact that it can remain stationary for longer periods of time. 

So, in summary, no, a 'weather balloon' could not travel to the United States from China in the context and specifications listed above. 

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