The balloon that was launched in July 2019, Professor Wu said then, was a “big guy,” nearly 330 feet in length and weighing several tons, which appears to be bigger than the balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina by an American fighter jet this month. “This is the first time that an aerodynamically controlled airship has flown around the world in the stratosphere at 20,000 meters,” or about 65,000 feet high, Professor Wu told an outlet of the Southern Daily newspaper of Guangdong Province.
The 2019 flight was not a one-off for Professor Wu and his team. The Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group, or EMAST, a Beijing-based company that Professor Wu co-founded in 2004, has claimed a series of other successes for them.
Advances in high-altitude balloons held out the potential for “high resolution, long-lasting, stable communications, reconnaissance, navigation and other services,” EMAST said on its official WeChat social media account in 2017.
In 2019, Professor Wu and his team “acquired a signal from between earth and near space” for the first time, EMAST said. The company did not explain what kind of signals were involved, nor whether the step was linked to the “Cloud Catcher” flight of that year or another airship. The company’s website has been offline recently, but cached records of its web pages can still be found online.
In 2020, a Chinese balloon made a full circumnavigation of the globe and was safely retrieved, a pioneering feat, EMAST said. In the following year, the team operated two of the balloons in the skies simultaneously, a first for the project.
In 2022, the cached EMAST web pages say, Professor Wu and his team either launched or planned to launch — the Chinese wording on the timing is unclear — three high-altitude balloons in the air at the same time to form an “airborne network.” The ultimate goal, the company said, was to create an airborne signals network in China using stationary balloons floating at least 80,000 feet high.
It likened the planned network to Starlink, the system of small, low-orbiting satellites operated by SpaceX. Starlink has provided communications support to Ukrainian forces fighting Russian invaders. By 2028, EMAST said, it hoped to “complete a global near-space information network,” but did not elaborate on what that meant.