Hobbyist balloons in the spotlight after possible military shootdowns

A hobbyist club in Illinois said its high-altitude balloon that's missing might have been shot down by fighter jets last weekend. While the club continues to look for answers, a San Jose-based group says hobby balloons have been in the skies for decades despite only now getting worldwide attention.

California Near Space Project (CNSP) works with schools and universities for balloon-related research.

"The students are learning by flying these flights around the world. They are learning communications, aviation, weather, and geography with the teachers," said Ron Meadows, the founder of CNSP.

The global interest in high-altitude balloons began in early February when the US military tracked and ultimately shot down what the government said was a Chinese spy balloon.

A week later the military shot down three more balloons over the US and Canadian airspace which could turn out to be nothing more than scientific, or hobbyist balloons.

"You know I knew, at some point, this would happen. I didn’t think it would happen to this degree," Meadows said.

Meadows said the latest technology called "super pressure" balloons,  fly well above commercial aircraft and carry only small location transmitters. They can ride the jet stream and travel around the world. One stayed aloft for two years and made 35 trips around the Earth.

"Through all of these years, we have never had a complaint from one single government. No one has complained," said Meadows.

Meadows believes the recent incidents could prompt changes, including better identifying the balloons with some kind of database.

"To give our government, other governments, a better idea of the flight, what it is, and maybe they would have a description of what tracker or tracking system they are using on the flight so all governments would feel comfortable with these causing no problems," Meadows said. "It is not going to hurt anyone, any place, anywhere."

Meadows says the tracking technology, or payload, on super-pressure balloons can weigh as little as 20 grams and uses only solar power to send out its location coordinates to receivers on the ground.