Alphabet pulled the plug on Loon in early 2021. It was a business decision, not a reflection on the technology—basically, its mission became moot as remote areas managed to get connected without receiving signals from the mutant offspring of Phileas Fogg. Still, the Loon team working in partnership with a company called Raven Aerostar (more recently the Aerostar division was sold off from Raven)—which had spent decades in balloon technology—can boast that it pushed balloon tech to, um, new heights. “We advanced the technology significantly,” says Cassidy. This point was missed by many pundits commenting on the Chinese spy ship. “Everyone you talk to after the Chinese spy story is saying you can’t fly a balloon halfway around the world and put it where you want,” says Aerostar’s vice president of stratospheric solutions, Russ Van Der Werff. “We do that every week.”
That led me to wonder, could it be that X’s advances might have informed, if not directly aided, the technology Wu and his team used to allegedly send that balloon on its controversial and ultimately doomed journey across the United States? The US is clearly motivated to slow the progress of the People’s Republic of China’s near-space surveillance program. Toward that end, Joe Biden has just blackballed six Chinese companies suspected of contributing to it. But maybe they got some of their best ideas from US companies for free.
I want to be clear: There’s no evidence that the advances in balloon technology made by Alphabet helped the Chinese spy effort. Not surprisingly, no one at Alphabet or Aerostar wants to go near this question. But if the PRC was paying attention in the past decade, it could have learned all sorts of successful conceptual approaches—and even some great details—from the X division’s extensive explanations of how it created, controlled, and managed its fleet of balloons. Knowing China’s penchant for monitoring Western technology, it’s almost inconceivable that Wu and his team haven’t followed the Loon project. And If Wu is correct about the dates of China’s breakthroughs, they all came after Loon and Aerostar solved a lot of problems for what are called “high altitude platform stations.”
“Ten years ago it wasn’t even a pipe dream to have balloons that last hundreds of days, in the hardest part of the stratosphere, that could change altitude and keep on station for months,” says Lon Stroschein, a 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’re able to survive in the stratosphere and can change altitudes, we’re in trouble.”
As it turns out, recent reporting indicates that the Chinese airship wiped out by a Sidewinder missile was a “broken arrow”—a balloon that floated free of mission control and went off on its own after snooping on Guam and Hawaii. This would indicate that China has a lot of work to do. One potentially invaluable resource might be the Loon Library, a 432-page archive of technical material that Alphabet released when Loon went offline in 2021. This is part of the Loon Collection, which includes flight data from nearly 2,100 flights and a 134-slide technical overview. Shared in the feel-good spirit of open-sourcing, the collection is full of detail-rich documents and technical information. It’s great for everyone that Alphabet shares what it learned after shutting down a project. But everyone includes people on all sides of global rivalries.