There are more things in the sky than clouds, that’s for sure. And in a place like Teton Valley, with aware, observant people and vast stretches of sky overhead, they are not going to escape notice for very long.
At the lower levels we see an amazing array of aircraft, from crop dusters to vintage warbirds to hot air balloons to airliners streaking overhead between coasts or continents. And at night when it’s clear, you can almost always spot one of the estimated 5,000 satellites in orbit much higher than the aircraft and looking like slowly moving stars. But it’s not those things that draw our attention as much as the more seldom seen things in the sky between where airplanes fly and space.
Typically, high altitude balloons can only be seen from the surface by the most sharp eyed observers and only when the light is just right, usually in a clear sky with low setting or rising sun reflecting off of them. Compared to aircraft or rockets, high altitude balloons are a less expensive way to get things very high. Meteorologists use them to measure conditions at the upper edge of the atmosphere, amateur radio operators have used them to test the range of their on-board transmitters, and internet balloons (sometimes known as Project Loon, or Google balloons) are being used to provide wireless service to remote areas. Like it or not, high altitude balloons are a happening thing in today’s sky, and once in a while they become visible to us.
A case in point happened last week. The Teton Valley Weather Facebook page received reports of two bright lights in the northwest sky as the sun set. Nick reported one of them was 40 degrees high and directly above the sun as it was setting. They were bright enough to be seen through the high clouds and did not seem to move for about 15 minutes. And just as Nick was reporting this, a report came on KIDK Eyewitness News about two lights in the sky seen from Idaho Falls. KIDK also took calls about them from Teton Valley. Some said the lights were not moving at all, others saw them moving only very slowly. For this reason, the initial thought that they were light reflecting off of conventional aircraft did not seem possible. Perhaps related or not, the previous Wednesday, Rachel reported seeing something in the sky south of Victor that had been there for a few days. "I looked at it with binoculars and can see something trailing at the bottom," she said.
When Annette commented that her dad worked in an airport tower for 25 years and periodically got reports of strange sights in the sky, all of which could be explained, Teton Valley Weather contacted the National Weather Service office in Pocatello which is located right next to the airport there. And they had what just might be the answer to the lights some of us saw from the valley Tuesday evening.
The week before, similar lights were seen and photographed in the sky over Kansas City, Missouri. At that time, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, reported that they had launched three high altitude balloons from Cumberland, Maryland, on June 17th. It was apparently some of these balloons that were spotted from Kansas City on June 20th and from SE Idaho on June 25th.
The stated purpose of this DARPA project, the Adaptable Lighter Than Air project (ALTA), is to “demonstrate capability for wind-borne navigation of a lighter-than-air vehicle over extended ranges.” These are weather balloons on steroids. As I understand it, they have no propulsion capability of their own, but can move up and down to take advantage of favorable winds at different altitudes to navigate.
I thought it strange that the balloons were moving east to west since the jet stream and weather patterns usually move west to east across our country. But again, our friends at the National Weather Service explained: “It turns out that these Balloons are immersed in the high Stratosphere, where the winds are blowing from east to west at our latitudes.”
So just like the much lower hot air balloons that will fill our skies this week during the Teton Valley Balloon Rally, the ALTA balloons (great name for balloons seen from Teton Valley isn’t it?) will move up and down to find a wind going their way and take it. And may you have the wind at your back as well. Happy Fourth of July!