The Chinese spy balloon panic that gripped the world earlier this year may have had its origins in an experiment proposed by one of America’s most fascinating scientists.
Luis Alvarez, whose work took in research into nuclear bombs, dinosaurs, the pyramids, and even the Kennedy assassination, devised a high-altitude balloon experiment in the early 1960s which was one of the first attempts to observe the very origin of the Universe.
But the giant balloon – codenamed HAPPE – was lost over the Pacific and one of Alvarez’s team believes it may have been recovered by Chinese researchers who used it to inspire their experiments in reconnaissance balloons.
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The NASA-funded project was meant to be destroyed over the Pacific, says Richard A. Muller, but its remains were never found.
The balloon, which like the Chinese one that caused all the fuss in February, was roughly 200 feet tall, and flew at around 65,000 feet.
Muller points out, in an article for the Wall Street Journal, that China’s initial experiments with large-scale surveillance balloons were codenamed HAPI, not so far from the name of the device he worked on with Alvarez.
The 1964 American experiment was designed to soar into the upper reaches of the Earth’s stratosphere, collecting traces of highly energetic remnants of the Big Bang that can’t penetrate the dense lower atmosphere.
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But, he says, such balloons are “almost impossible to steer,” and travel in whatever direction the winds carry them.
“These winds are seasonal,” says Muller , “and when we launched a prototype, HAPPE”0, from Palestine, Texas, we did so during one of the two brief periods every year called turnaround.
“That’s when the wind reverses direction and is temporarily low velocity, making a balloon less likely to be blown into an urban area.”
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The scientists tracked the balloon’s signals using a World War II system called long-range navigation, or Loran.
Muller was tasked with monitoring HAPPE’s signals: “The package took only a few hours to pass over my telemetry site, and since it did so at night, although I received its nocturnal beeps” he says.
“I never spotted it visually. Local residents didn’t believe that my telemetry station was part of a cosmic-ray project. They knew NASA had sponsored the experiment and suspected we were studying flying saucers”.
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The balloon was fitted with a self-destruct device that enabled the researchers to destroy it if it showed signs of wandering out of its designated recovery zone.
It was important to prevent the balloon from coming to land anywhere near a populated area.
“In 1947,” he points out, “a similar balloon from a classified experiment called Project Mogul crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, and ignited the flying saucer frenzy”.
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But the team lost contact with the balloon, which was blown somewhere over the Pacific and never seen again.
A land and sea search was launched, but nothing was ever found. It was thought at the time that the balloon – together with its valuable science package – hit the ocean at over 100 mph and was completely destroyed.
But Muller now thinks that, just maybe, pieces of the monster balloon may have ended up in China, leading to its advanced technology coming home to roost 60 years later.
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