Hawaii News

Stratospheric balloon flying over Big Island part of Project Aether

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“Anyone else seeing this very weird thing above Waimea right now?” asked Nancy Campbell in a Facebook group post at about 9 a.m. Monday.

The post included a photo and short video of a white object with a bulbous head and long tail floating in the bright blue sky over the Big Island.

“Flying squid,” Jeremiah Lofgreen replied to Campbell. “Nothing to see here.”

The aerial anomaly was no soaring cephalopod. It also wasn’t a Chinese spy balloon or Batman looking for his parking spot, as suggested in other social media posts and replies. The reality behind the object’s appearance that spurred all the chatter is far less imaginative than scientific.


Despite some on social media saying it wasn’t floating all that far up in the sky, one commenting the object was “literally just [chilling] over our house” with a rolling crying laughing emoji, what people were seeing was a high-altitude balloon launched Monday morning from Waimea-Kohala Airport in North Hawai‘i.

Samantha Hansen in an 18-second video posted in the Puna Weather Facebook group just after 6 a.m. showed the massive about 400-foot balloon mostly still sitting on the airport’s runway as preparations were being made for its launch. She wasn’t sure if it would fly at all thanks to uncooperative winds, but two hours later said it was taking off and shortly after reported where it was headed.

“Should be visible over [Maunakea] now headed towards Hilo,” she said in an 8:40 a.m. reply to her post.

Screenshot from Facebook.

Sierra Nevada Corp., a leader in the aerospace and national security industries, confirmed the balloon’s launch. Initially, as reported last week by the Hawai‘i Department of Transportation and Hawai‘i County, the company and its project partner World View planned to send up two of the high-altitude stratospheric balloons between March 23 and 25. The launches, however, were delayed because of weather.


The first balloon floated off Monday morning from the Waimea airport. The second balloon should take to the sky sometime later this week. A launch date will be determined within the next few days, again depending on the weather.

The balloons are part of a mission — Project Aether — to demonstrate unmanned stratospheric communication capabilities and will be near the Big Island for about 48 hours after their launch before they make their way across the Pacific Ocean and over the mainland on a 4,000 nautical mile journey during the next two months.

Their target altitude is between 70,000 and 90,000 feet up in the sky, well above where passenger planes fly, and they will land in a location on the East Coast, where a team will recover the balloons and their related components.

The flights were coordinated with federal, state and local authorities.


So there’s no need to fret or speculate. What Big Islanders saw in the sky today was not a Chinese spy balloon like the one shot down by the U.S. military earlier this year off the coast of South Carolina. And, no, it’s not spying on Americans. It’s just the second flight in the assessment phase of a communications test.

“Due to recent national concerns surrounding stratospheric balloons, the County hopes to alleviate any confusion or misrepresentation of these balloons as they’re launched,” said a March 22 press release from Hawai‘i County about the balloons.

Just remember that another high-altitude balloon is expected to launch from the same place at some point before the end of the week — as long as the weather cooperates.

For more information, click here.

High-altitude balloon observed in the sky the morning of March 27, 2023, over Honoka‘a. Photo credit: Darde Gamayo.
Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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