I’m not going to start to speculate about what was on that spy balloon. No real way to know, and I sure as heck am not going to believe a thing the government — any part of it — says. But it is fair to ask what I would have put on it. I’m going to go with bus rather than truss for a number of reasons, including simplicity.
First up, hyperspectral and multispectral imaging systems. Visual light tells you a lot, but a good argument can be made it hides an even larger amount of information. It’s almost frightening how much detail there is in satellite visual imagery, but there is so much more data in the other frequencies you can’t see with the naked eye.
Next, SIGINT. You are going to be floating around over a country and have the chance to collect and analyze a lot of signals intelligence data. You might be surprised at what all does give off signals, from keyboards to the cell phone in your pocket. Can it be picked up by a system on a balloon? Yep, some SIGINT can even be picked up by satellite. Just ask Brezhnev and Olga, and thank you Jimmy you clown. Closer to the ground, longer baseline, and the chance to have external antennas on the bus or even among any lines running up the balloon, and you could get quite a bit.
Sidenote: most devices are far more noisy than you think. Unshielded keyboards used to give off a decent RF signal for each key. So much so that one place I worked years back, the common wisdom was that the Soviets had a remote receiver hidden in the woods nearby to pick up that and other SIGINT from testing. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t security that caused them to switch most data over to fiber optic lines from copper. If you think lightning surges on a home computer are bad, try having them affect multiple Crays and other equipment.
Now, either as a separate package or a dedicated SIGINT subpackage, I would put in a system to monitor military and civilian aircraft com traffic. You’ve got to figure that when/if detected, someone will say something and if there is competent leadership at any level (doubtful but possible) that hasn’t been bought off, someone will get sent up to take a look. Even if the traffic is encrypted, you can learn a fair bit even without cracking the code. Including even getting an idea of when and where they tumbled to you.
Just me, but as part of things I would also put some standard HD video cameras and accelerometers at locations on the bus. Along with standard instruments, it would aid in control, steering, and letting you see who is taking a look. You could determine how close they got and a bit more.
The other thing I would have onboard even if it took a fuel cell, thermocouple, or other power source beyond solar is ground penetrating radar. There are some already pushing the idea (HT Instapundit), and I seem to recall such a unit flying on an early Shuttle mission in support of archeological operations (cough). In short, if it can find a lost city buried in a jungle, it can find a heck of a lot of things military and infrastructure related.
You could also gather a lot of interesting information on surface topography using interferometry. Bus is certainly long enough for certain types. Couple of other things to try, but that’s a pretty good package. Add in your command and control systems, com systems, and you’ve got a good payload. And, yes, everything on board should have separate destruct systems. In fact, I might even set things so that if the accelerometers detect a large event, such as that caused by a missile exploding close by or even on the connection between the bus and the balloon (or just a rapid descent), that those packages detonate right then. Scatter the parts over a wide area and make it harder for anyone to figure out what was onboard and what might have been collected.
Just a thought, but it sure would be nice to have some places where one might could make an emergency descent for a balloon not too far from a military base. Just in case something went wrong and the balloon in question wasn’t detected. Bring it down after dark let’s say. I suspect a lot worse with the Fufeng Group, and kudos to this town for doing the right thing that DC couldn’t be bothered to do. Funny how the Chinese government is buying up land near major military bases…
Otherwise, nothing has really changed since Monday’s post. When it comes to intelligence gathering, balloons are cheap, reliable, and expendable. Could they be used for other things? Sure, but I’ve not seen good cases made for some of the more interesting speculation out there. One presumes that NORAD might actually try to do something (maybe) about detecting and intercepting now, which would limit utility all around. Then again, given our “elite” political and military leadership…
One final thought. If I were going to be doing this, I would be using as much non-metallic materials as possible. There are a number of fabrics that would work for the balloon that would generate little radar signature. In place of a metallic truss system, use carbon fiber or other advanced materials. Even with the solar panels, you can still play games with radar cross section. Make the com system as tight beam as possible so few to no general broadcasts (laser to satellite anyone?), and you can come close to making it a hole in the sky. I wonder, I wonder, and I wish I could trust anything out of the government.
Getting hit by lightning is not fun! If you would like to help me in my recovery efforts, which include moving to the SW, feel free to hit the fundraiser at A New Life on GiveSendGo, use the options in the Tip Jar in the upper right, or drop me a line to discuss other methods. It is thanks to your gifts and prayers that I am still going. Thank you.