Google’s Project Loon high altitude balloons spotted over Virginia and Carolinas

High-altitude balloon spotted flying over the southeast this week.
High-altitude balloon spotted flying over the southeast this week.(Lisa Rich - Cary, NC)
Published: Jul. 7, 2020 at 1:35 AM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - If you happened to look in just the right area Monday you may have spotted what looked like white “dots” slowly moving across the sky. Turns out, what you likely saw were high altitude balloons that are part of a research project by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, to create a wireless network across the globe in places where towers can’t easily be constructed.

Tony Rice, an astronomer and NASA Ambassador, confirms “they have transponders onboard showing their position which is consistent with Google’s balloon-based internet project known as Loon. These balloons are above 50k feet so they’re visible for a wide area around their flight path.”

According to flight data, the balloons dropped southward from Canada the past few days and were last detected near Ohio late Sunday before moving into West Virginia, southwest Virginia and into North Carolina Monday.

Under just the right conditions, the high altitude balloons can be visible through a pair of binoculars when sunlight hits them just right as they float at around 50,000 feet. For perspective, most commercial aircraft fly between 30,000 and 38,000 feet — about 5.9 to 7.2 miles. A weather balloon typically reaches between 60,000 and 100,000 feet. These balloons fly in what is known as the Stratosphere. Most weather occurs in the layer below where the balloons fly called the Troposphere.

Much like hot air balloon pilots would do to get from place-to-place, these unmanned balloons ride global wind currents like rivers, climbing, and sinking to find the right flow to get to a destination. Google’s computers take weather data from NOAA and determine which current they need to hitch a ride on to reach their destinations. The balloons can only go up or down.

According to the Loon website, most of the research has been done in the Southern Hemisphere, where there are far more remote areas in need of internet service. However, in recent years, the balloons have been deployed to areas hit by natural disasters such as Puerto Rico during the Hurricane Maria aftermath.

Learn more about Google’s Project Loom from The Verge.

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