Alphabet shut down Loon in early 2021. It was a business decision, not a speculation on technology – in fact, its mission became moot as outlying areas managed to connect without receiving signals from mutant descendants. Phileas Fogg. However, the Loon team, working in partnership with a company called Raven Aerostar (most recently the Aerostar division was sold from Raven), which has spent decades building balloon technology, can boast that it has taken balloon technology to new heights. “We’ve improved the technology a lot,” Cassidy says. This moment has been missed by many experts commenting on the Chinese spy ship. “Everyone you talk to after the Chinese spy story says you can’t fly a balloon halfway around the world and put it where you want,” says Aerostar vice president of stratospheric solutions Russ Van Der Werff. “We do this every week.”
This led me to wonder if X’s successes could inform, if not directly help, the technology that Wu and his team allegedly used to send this balloon on its controversial and ultimately doomed journey across the United States? The US clearly has an interest in slowing down China’s near-space observation program. To this end, Joe Biden has just blacklisted six Chinese companies suspected of contributing to this. But they may have gotten some of their best ideas from American companies for free.
I want to be clear: there is no evidence that Alphabet’s advances in balloon technology helped Chinese espionage activities. No wonder no one at Alphabet or Aerostar wants to bring this up. But if the PRC had been more attentive in the last decade, it could have gleaned all sorts of successful conceptual approaches—and even some important details—from Division X’s detailed explanations of how it created, controlled, and managed its balloon fleet. Knowing China’s penchant for monitoring Western technology, it’s almost unbelievable that Wu and his team aren’t monitoring the Loon project. And if Wu is right about the dates of China’s breakthroughs, then they all happened after Loon and Aerostar solved a lot of problems for what is called “stations on high platforms“.
“Ten years ago, it wasn’t even a pipe dream to have balloons that could last hundreds of days in the toughest part of the stratosphere, that could change altitude and stay in place for months,” says Lon Strawshine, former Raven Aerostar executive. who worked on the Loon partnership. “Now we have them, and we were decades ahead of everything else. But if the Chinese have more technology than we expected, and they are able to survive in the stratosphere and change altitude, we have a problem.”
As it turns out, recent reports indicate that the Chinese airship that was destroyed by the Sidewinder missile was a “broken arrow” – a balloon that hovered without flight control and gone by itself after spying on Guam and Hawaii. This indicates that China has a lot of work to do. One potentially invaluable resource can be Lunskaya LibraryA 432-page tech archive that Alphabet released when Loon went offline in 2021. This is the part Collection of loons, which includes flight data from nearly 2,100 flights and a technical overview of 134 slides. Divided in the pleasant spirit of open source, the collection is full of detailed documents and technical information. Everyone is pleased that Alphabet shares its knowledge after the project is closed. But every includes people from all sides of the global rivalry.