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Experts say even trivial info that high-altitude balloons gather can be valuable

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A lot more of us are scanning the skies for balloons and other identified aerial objects now. But high-flying orbs aren't a totally new phenomenon. For years, China has been quietly developing its capacity in high-altitude balloons. Now, the objective is to compete with countries like the U.S. in aerial surveillance. NPR's Emily Feng explains why.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: In March 2018, state officials and key state scientists gathered in Beijing to celebrate the creation of a new research initiative called the Honghu Project, meaning swan in Chinese. The project's director is an aerospace engineer named Xiangli Bin, who also oversees China's first domestic satellite system. Except Honghu focused on creating high-altitude, so-called near-space balloons, balloons that can float up to 40, 50 to 65,000 feet high.

CARL SCHUSTER: The beauty of a balloon is it flies above what's known as safe navigational space.

FENG: This is Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center.

SCHUSTER: A balloon drifting in the wind at 10 to 20 miles an hour at that altitude, you wouldn't traditionally think of that as a threat.

FENG: And they're also cheap. And that combination makes balloons more attractive to militaries. It is unclear whether Honghu research was incorporated in the Chinese balloon shot down over the United States in February. But the project shows China's renewed interest in this low-tech form of technology that's been around for centuries. Now these balloons can be repurposed for higher tech needs - for example, scooping up communication signals or even, Schuster says, gathering data to help guide next-generation hypersonic weapons.

SCHUSTER: When you're launching a ballistic missile, the meteorological information about where you launch is probably the most important meteorological data you can cover. But a hypersonic weapon flies along the edge of the stratosphere at altitudes of 100 to 120,000 feet. The balloon is giving you that data.

FENG: Analysts say even collecting simple meteorological data from balloons can have military applications. That's why one Chinese military editorial declared last year that, quote, near-space vehicles have increasingly become the new darling of long-range and rapid-strike weapons. Balloons are a fraction of the cost of satellites. And...

MATTHEW TURPIN: There are certain advantages that come from a platform that's relatively much closer. One of the benefits is that you can keep it in one spot.

FENG: This is Matthew Turpin, a former National Security Council director for China, explaining how hovering balloons can collect images close to the ground, making them another tool of many in the Chinese government's ever expanding surveillance toolkit.

TURPIN: There is no one thing that is the magic button. It's a collection of capabilities and things to put together a full picture. It's the integration of all that different types of intelligence together that provides, you know, actionable information.

FENG: Meanwhile, China says the U.S. is the one doing the aerial spying. A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry accused the U.S. of flying its own surveillance vehicles, quote, "more than 10 times" into Chinese airspace since January 2022, an allegation the U.S. has resolutely denied.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.