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How the U.S. may have popped the balloon on scientific education and research

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The three objects shot down over the U.S. and Canada earlier this month remain a source of intrigue in Washington, although President Biden has ruled out espionage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The intelligence community's current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research.

FADEL: Scientists use balloons for a lot of reasons. And as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, they're worried that people are getting the wrong idea.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Angela Des Jardins is a physicist at Montana State University in Bozeman, west of where the Chinese balloon was first spotted by the public.

ANGELA DES JARDINS: It was over Billings, which is a couple of hours east of here. So, no, I didn't actually see it.

BRUMFIEL: But she's seen plenty of others. Since 2001, students at Montana State University have been launching balloons to the upper edge of the atmosphere.

DES JARDINS: Up at that high, it's almost like the vacuum of space. It's cold. So you can test a lot of things and give, you know, budding engineers and scientists the experience.

BRUMFIEL: Of what it's like to build equipment for satellites and spacecraft. The balloons launched by Des Jardins' students are typically a lot smaller than the one flown by China. But she doesn't think that matters.

DES JARDINS: Especially once they shot down the Chinese balloon, we pretty quickly realized that this was going to have an impact on our community.

BRUMFIEL: Student balloon launches have, in the past been peaceful, festive affairs.

DES JARDINS: Student groups would get together and a lot of times they would invite other groups to come watch a balloon being launched. But now it's a little bit more of a sense of, oh, are the people watching, like, worried about this? Are they going to bring a gun and try and shoot down the balloon?

BRUMFIEL: She says that when her students launch balloons later this year, she expects to do a lot more outreach to locals in law enforcement to try and reassure them that the balloons are harmless. Education isn't the only thing balloons are used for. Gregory Guzik is a professor at Louisiana State University. He says scientists frequently fly experiments on balloons to study things like the sun, cosmic rays from deep space.

GREGORY GUZIK: Environmental studies, as well as climate change and other kinds of pollution - so it really covers a broad, broad range of activities.

BRUMFIEL: Guzik works with large, high-altitude balloons that from a distance look a lot like the Chinese balloon. He's not too worried about getting shot down. They carry radio beacons that let everyone know they're not a threat.

GUZIK: All of our balloons have transponders. We know where they are.

BRUMFIEL: But Guzik says he is worried that the Chinese balloon may make it more difficult for other balloons to fly. For example, his balloons usually launch from a small town in New Mexico near a sensitive government facility.

GUZIK: While we don't try, we do brush up against the White Sands missile test range there.

BRUMFIEL: In the past, it hasn't been a big deal if a balloon drifts near. They notify White Sands and the balloon bobs by at an altitude far above airplanes and other stuff. But Guzik worries that fears about spying could change the rules, making it harder for peaceful balloons to fly. He says right now, the conversation is too focused on the military threat from balloons.

GUZIK: This other side of the story - the useful, practical ballooning that helps students, helps technology, and our better understanding of the universe - really needs to get out there.

BRUMFIEL: Remember, he says, if you look up and see a balloon floating by, the chances are it's doing something good for the world.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.