An example of amateur pico-ballooning is this Naval Academy amateur radio balloon experiment.
Image credit: Bob Bruninga, WB4APR


The amateur radio community continues to be in a buzz about those unidentified flying object shoot downs: one in Alaska, Canada, and over Lake Huron in the Midwest.

In one case, the object blasted out of the sky over Canada, Yukon by a U.S. Air Force jet might have been an amateur radio pico balloon, specifically K9YO-15, launched from Independence Grove Forest Preserve in Libertyville, Illinois, north of Chicago.  

K9YO-15 was apparently on its seventh circumnavigation of the globe after being aloft for 123 days.

Last contact with K9YO. Image credit: NIBBB

Science in nature

According to Cary Willis of the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade (NIBBB), there are roughly 3 million amateur radio operators around the globe, with the NIBBB being a very small group of pico balloon enthusiasts.

“Our balloons are very small, 32″ diameter, 100 inch circumference, pre-stretched and carry a payload of around 10 grams including the tracker, solar panel and 33 foot antenna wire,” Willis told Inside Outer Space.

The sky high K9YO-15 balloon made use of a silver mylar 32″ sphere, available for a low-price of $13.33.

“Our pico balloon K9YO had been flying for 123 days preparing for the 7th time around the world when it went missing over Canada. That wasn’t the first time K9YO went missing.  After the 5th time around the world in 77 days, K9YO went missing for 30 days, reported on the 106th day over Mongolia and continued the 6th circumnavigation at 112 days,” Willis added. 

“I believe our communications with the FBI will help them identify our project as science in nature.”

Image credit: Statista


Missing in action

Willis said that, in a communication with a NIBBB team member, “we should be very proud of the work that we have done, and hope to continue our project connecting with amateur radio stations around the world.”

Since the pico balloon has not been heard from for several days, amateurs are calling pico balloon K9YO, for now: “Missing in Action.” Pico balloon K9YO was last reported on February 11th near Hagemeister Island in the U.S. state of Alaska.

According to the Pentagon, the object shot down over Canada was a “small metallic balloon with a tethered payload” – seemingly a match for a pico balloon.

Image credit: White House

Abundance of caution

“We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were. But nothing — nothing right now suggests they were related to China’s spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from other — any other country,” said U.S. President, Joe Biden, in a February 16 briefing specific to addressing the United States’ response to recent aerial objects.

“We acted out of an abundance of caution,” Biden explained, “with established parameters for determining how to deal with unidentified aerial objects in U.S. airspace.”

Biden said that the intelligence community’s current assessment is that “these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation, or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research,” Biden said. A range of entities, including countries, companies, and research organizations “operate objects at altitudes for purposes that are not nefarious, including legitimate scientific research.”

A balloon with a flight computer suspended beneath it.
Image credit: Douglas Malnati


Perfectly safe

The possible shooting down of pico balloon K9YO was an unlucky incident, said Douglas Malnati, an amateur radio operator that launches pico balloons.

“Pico Balloons are safe. I think once the government has a better understanding of what they’re seeing they will agree,” Malnati told Inside Outer Space.

“Pico Balloons don’t spy on anyone, and they’re perfectly safe to be in the sky with aircraft. The FAA has guidelines about what can/can’t fly, and Pico Balloons are well inside the safety threshold, so they don’t pose a danger to aircraft, nor to people on the ground,” Malnati said, adding that they’re very lightweight even if they pop and fall, just grams of weight.

“So in total, I suspect the shoot down was a misunderstanding if that is what happened,” Malnati said. “As far as the future for pico balloons, hopefully the attention brings more people to the hobby and they enjoy it!”

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