How Commercial Satellites Could Track Spy Balloons and Other UFOs

It turns out that you don’t need the Men in Black to spot unidentified anomalous phenomena, which are also known as UAPs, unidentified flying objects or UFOs. Researchers have shown how the task of detecting aerial objects in motion could be done by analyzing Earth imagery from commercial satellites.

They say they demonstrated the technique using one of the most notorious UAP incidents of recent times: last year’s flight of a Chinese spy balloon over the U.S., which ended in a shootdown by an Air Force fighter jet above the Atlantic Ocean. They also analyzed imagery of a different spy balloon that passed over Colombia at about the same time.

“Our proposed method appears to be successful and allows the measurement of the apparent velocity of moving objects,” the researchers report.

In a 2023 video, CBS News recaps lessons learned from the Chinese spy balloon’s flight:

The demonstration is described in a research paper written by Harvard University’s Eric Keto and Wellesley College’s Wesley Andres Watters, who proposed their image analysis technique in an earlier study. The new study was posted to the ArXiv pre-print server last week and has been submitted to the Journal of Astronomical Instrumentation for review.

Keto and Watters started out with multispectral imagery captured by Planet’s SuperDove satellites during last year’s balloon flights. Such imagery isn’t captured all at once. Instead, the satellite’s sensors record a succession of exposures that reflect different spectral bands. That means an aerial object would be seen at a slightly different location in each of the images that are combined to produce a multispectral view, due to the parallax effect created by a moving satellite.

The researchers said the spy balloons were ideal subjects for their study. “High-altitude balloons are advantageous targets, because the motion of the balloon itself can be ignored in the analysis,” they said.

The aim of their study was to create a baseline for interpreting spectral-band images. The researchers conducted a detailed analysis of imagery that was acquired over British Columbia, Missouri and Colombia — and made a few educated guesses about the relative velocities involved. They took a variety of factors into account, including shifts in the background terrain and the potential effects of atmospheric distortion. (The British Columbia imagery wasn’t that useful, because snow and ice covered up the features that would typically be used for ground reference.)

The analysis not only provided a baseline for tracking moving objects using SuperDove satellite imagery, but also made it possible for the researchers to provide estimates for the altitudes of the balloons. They said one balloon flew over Missouri at a height of about 21,200 meters (69,500 feet), while the other balloon’s altitude was about 21,500 meters (70,500 feet) when it was spotted over Colombia.

Keto and Watters aren’t the only ones looking into how commercial satellite data could be used to track anomalous aerial objects. A team of researchers at RAIC Labs (formerly known as Synthetaic) used Planet’s data archive and RAIC Labs’ AI-based image analysis program to trace the infamous Chinese balloon’s route backward from the U.S. to its point of origin near Hainan.

A 2023 video focuses on how Planet and Synthetaic / RAIC Labs tracked the Chinese balloon:

Such techniques could be used to detect phenomena that are even more exotic than Chinese spy balloons: The study conducted by Keto and Watters is part of Harvard University’s Galileo Project, which is aimed at finding ways to collect high-quality data that could be useful in the search for objects of extraterrestrial origin.

Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, who heads up the Galileo Project, said last year in a blog posting that his team has been searching through Planet’s data archive for signs of unusual objects.

“Extraterrestrial equipment can be distinguished from a terrestrial object, not just by resolving unusual bolts or labels imprinted on its hardware but also based on its motion,” Loeb explained. “As mentioned in the DNI [Director of National Intelligence] reports in 2021 and 2022, unusual flight characteristics can serve as an indicator of an extraterrestrial origin.”

Will satellite data analysis become a standard tool for detecting anomalous aerial phenomena? Stay tuned: We’ve reached out to Loeb, Keto and Watters, and we’ll update this report with any additional information we can pass along.