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Mystery over Montana: Balloon spotted in weekend skies owned by South Dakota company

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Posted at 6:30 PM, Jul 02, 2024

BILLINGS — After last year's sighting of a Chinese spy balloon over Billings, Montanans have kept their eyes on the skies. That was especially true over the weekend, when several residents posted pictures on social media of a balloon spotted hovering over Montana skies.

That balloon, however, was not a foreign surveillance tool: It's owned by South Dakota-based aerospace technology company, Aerostar, which is conducting research to improve its technology.

The balloon spotted over the weekend was much bigger than a weather balloon.

“That Thunderhead system, like the one you sent the photo of, that’s a 60 or 70-foot wide balloon, so it’s a pretty good size balloon,” said Russ Van Der Werff, vice president of stratosphere solutions for Aerostar over a video call Tuesday.

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Aerostar's Thunderhead balloon system as it launches.

South Dakota-based Aerostar launched the balloon that many spotted, using it for research and development.

"Suddenly people's ears perk up when the balloons go overhead, and they think there must be something going on. But the reality is, you know, we've been flying these systems for decades," said Van Der Werff.

“We fly probably a couple dozen balloons a year just as R&D tests to test the navigation, the endurance, the steering, the solar and battery technology and all of that," Van Der Werff said. “It's designed to be a long-duration, navigational-enabled stratospheric balloon. So it flies, say, between 50 and 100,000 feet and it can steer to a location and persist there by using different winds at different altitudes up in the atmosphere."

These balloons are fitted with an aviation transponder, so they can be tracked.

“We file a flight plan, just like an aircraft would, work in contact with the FAA or whatever country authorities were flying over, just like an aircraft would,” said Van Der Werff.

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The flight path of the Thunderhead balloon system spotted over Montana this weekend.

The company works with partners like NASA, Google, and even the U.S. military, helping with everything from communications during natural disasters to scientific research.

It's something Van Der Werff hopes Montanans will get used to as the technology improves.

“As we figure out how to do more interesting stuff, more important stuff with these systems, there's going to be more of them there. So hopefully people can get used to seeing them. And it's not always a bad thing. In fact, a lot of the things we're doing are really good," Van Der Werff said.

As a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Glasgow, Patrick Gilchrist says his agency periodically fields calls about strange balloon sightings, particularly in the wake of the Chinese spy balloon flight last year.

“Certainly, it's drawn attention to weather balloons and to what's going on there. We've gotten some questions," said Gilchrist in a video call Tuesday.

Dozens of commenters on social media speculated that this latest balloon sighting was a National Weather Service balloon, but Gilchrist said his agency's balloons are smaller.

“Ours are designed to go from the service of the Earth up to about 100,000 feet, sample what that is, then they burst. Then they fall to the Earth and they’re done with them basically,” Gilchrist said.

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A meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Glasgow releases a weather balloon.

NWS launches at least two weather balloons daily from both Glasgow and Great Falls, usually around 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. The balloons provide the data that drive their forecasts.

“We’ve seen some of these balloons drift through from time to time, but we don’t think a whole lot of them,” added Gilchrist.