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Monday, February 13, 2023

China’s Top Airship Scientist Said He Sent One Over North America in 2019

China’s Top Airship Scientist Said He Sent One Over North America in 2019

“Corporate records and media reports reveal an airship scientist at the center of China’s high-altitude balloon program. Companies he has founded were among those targeted by Washington.

A high-altitude balloon floating over Billings, Mont., earlier this month. It was later shot down off the coast of South Carolina.
Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette, via Associated Press

In 2019, years before a hulking high-altitude Chinese balloon floated across the United States and caused widespread alarm, one of China’s top aeronautics scientists made a proud announcement that received little attention back then: His team had launched an airship more than 60,000 feet into the air and sent it sailing around most of the globe, including across North America.

The scientist, Wu Zhe, told a state-run news outlet at the time that the “Cloud Chaser” airship was a milestone in his vision of populating the upper reaches of the earth’s atmosphere with steerable balloons that could be used to provide early warnings of natural disasters, monitor pollution or carry out airborne surveillance.

“Look, there’s America,” Professor Wu said in an accompanying video, pointing on a computer screen to a red line that appeared to trace the airship’s path across Asia, northern Africa, and near the southern edge of the United States. By the time of the report, it was over the Pacific Ocean.

Professor Wu’s announcement is part of a body of evidence revealing in new detail the scope of the Chinese government’s ambitions to use high-altitude airships to track earthbound activities, with an eye on both domestic and military needs. Chinese media reports, academic studies and officials’ speeches suggest that Professor Wu has been central to China’s balloon development efforts.

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The program leaped to global attention, and concern, when the United States shot down a Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4 after it had traveled across the country. Since then, U.S. fighter jets have also shot down three unidentified flying objects over North America.

A senior academic at Beihang University, a Beijing-based institution at the forefront of China’s aviation and space research, Professor Wu has also worked in airship development for nearly two decades. Now several of his companies have been caught up in the Biden administration’s efforts to counter those plans. Professor Wu has been a founder or major stakeholder in at least three of the six Chinese entities that Washington punishedlast week for their involvement in what the Biden administration calls Beijing’s surveillance balloon program.

Washington did not say whether any of blacklisted entities was specifically linked to the Chinese balloon that was discovered and shot down over the United States this month. Nor has it singled out Professor Wu by name. Emails and calls to Professor Wu’s office went unanswered on Monday.

China has maintained that the Chinese balloon was a civilian airship that was conducting mostly meteorological research when it was blown off course. On Monday, Beijing pointed its finger at Washington, saying that the United States has flown high-altitude balloons over Chinese airspace more than 10 times since last year.

Professor Wu, who turns 66 this month, has emerged as a central figure in China’s ambitions in “near space,” the band of the atmosphere between 12 and 62 miles above earth that is too high for most planes to stay aloft for long and too low for space satellites.

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He has helped design jet fighters, developed expertise in stealth materials, won prizes for his work from the Chinese military and was a vice president of Beihang University before deciding to return to research and teaching. He also sat on an advisory committee to the now-disbanded General Armaments Department of the People’s Liberation Army, according to his biography on the Beihang University website.

Beihang University in Beijing. The university is at the forefront of China’s aviation and space research.
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Chinese strategists see near space as an arena of deepening great-power rivalry, where China must master the new materials and technologies needed to establish a firm presence, or risk being edged out. That anxiety has deepened as relations with the United States have soured under Xi Jinping, China’s resolutely nationalist leader. Near space, Chinese analysts argue, offers a potentially useful alternative to satellites and surveillance planes, which may become vulnerable to detection, blocking or attacks.

Near space “is a major sphere of competition between the 21st century military powers,” Shi Hong, a Chinese military commentator wrote in a current affairs journal last year. “Whoever gains the edge in near space vehicles will be able to win more of the initiative in future wars.”

Until recently, China’s long-distance high-altitude balloon flights drew little attention, perhaps partly a testament to their success in staying off the radars of foreign governments.

The Biden administration now says that China has sent them over more than 40 countries and that the United States was only able to detect the flights by reviewing stored data. Now, the U.S. military is adjusting its radars to try to spot more incursions. Over the weekend, U.S. fighter jets shot down three unidentified flying objects over Alaska, Canada and Michigan.

High-altitude balloons are made of special materials that can cope with the harsh extremes of temperatures and carry loads in thin air. For the balloons to be useful, operators on earth must be able to stay in touch with them across vast distances. Professor Wu’s open academic publications and other reports indicate that he and his scientific collaborators have long studied these challenges.

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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.

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There has been no public corroboration of Professor Wu’s claimed successes with high-altitude balloons. His available scientific papers do not describe any of those feats. Nonetheless, Professor Wu is a highly awarded scientist whose views carry official weight.

In 2015, the Communist Party’s newspaper, People’s Daily, hailed the work of Professor Wu and his team after they launched a balloon in northern China that stayed aloft at more than 65,000 feet. That was a breakthrough for China in developing the materials and knowledge for long-endurance near-space voyages, the reports said.

Scientists inflating a weather balloon on the Tibetan side of Mount Everest, in May. The balloon China was flying over the United States was larger and more sophisticated, and it flew higher.
Sun Fei/Xinhua, via Getty Images

The team had “pioneered a new path for developing near-space flying craft,” Zhang Jun, the Communist Party secretary of Beihang University, said in a meeting in 2015. Mr. Zhang urged them to go further, “focusing on national strategic needs.”

Professor Wu appeared eager to expand his footprint in the commercial realm. That same year, he began preparations to found a campus of Beihang University in Dongguan, a manufacturing and technology city over 1,000 miles south of Beijing. He was also involved in several companies looking to turn his and his research partners’ work into commercial applications, corporate records indicate.

In partnership with a Shanghai property company, he helped to found Beijing Nanjiang Aerospace Technology, a company that described itself as being focused on “near space” technology. That company, as well as Eagles Men Aviation and another company he created, Shanxi Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group, were among the six entities the Department of Commerce imposed sanctions upon last week. Calls to his companies went unanswered on Monday.

Until perhaps recently, Professor Wu appeared to show no misgivings about revealing his corporate links. In 2021, he and his partners announced that they were applying to list shares of Eagles Men Aviation on a new stock exchange in Beijing. The announcement noted the military demand for the company’s concealment products, including camouflage and stealth materials to help aircraft evade detection.

Amy Chang Chien and Ana Swanson contributed reporting“

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