Years before a gigantic white spy balloon from China made headlines in America, a top Chinese aerospace scientist was tracking the real-time path of an unmanned airship, Cloud Chaser, across the globe. This airship weighed several tons and measured 328 feet (100 meters) in length, which is 80 feet longer than a Boeing 747-8, one of the largest passenger aircraft in the world. Wu Zhe, the vessel’s chief architect, told the state-run newspaper Nanfang Daily, “Look, here’s America.” He pointed to a red line marking the airship’s journey at about 65,000 feet in the air, noting that in 2019, that flight was setting a world record. Wu, a veteran aerospace researcher, has played a key role in advancing the Chinese regime in what it describes as the “near space” race, referring to the layer of the atmosphere sitting between 12 and 62 miles above the earth. This region, which is too high for jets but too low for satellites, has been seen as ripe for exploitation in the regime’s bid to achieve military dominance. The U.S. and Canadian militaries have since taken down three flying objects over North American airspace, although President Joe Biden on Feb. 16 said those are likely linked to private companies. Wu has ties to at least four of the six Chinese entities Washington recently sanctioned for supporting Beijing’s sprawling military balloon program, which the U.S. administration said has reached over 40 countries on five continents. He is the chairman of Beijing-based Eagles Men Aviation Science, one of the six firms that, along with its branch in Shanxi, Washington has named as culprits in the balloon sanctions. Both Beihang and the Harbin Institute of Technology, Wu’s alma mater and dubbed “China’s MIT,” are on a U.S. trade blacklist, the former for aiding China’s military rocket and unmanned air vehicle systems, and the latter for using U.S. technology to support Chinese missile programs. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long vied for dominance in near space, which Chinese scientists see as a region for a variety of applications, from high-altitude balloons to hypersonic missiles. From high above, there’s a wealth of information that an aerostat, equipped with an electronic surveillance system, can intercept and turn into an intelligence asset. As early as the 1970s, efforts were underway at the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences to explore high-altitude balloons. Chinese military researchers have also touted the utility of these balloons during combat. Newspaper articles and research papers have pored over balloons’ potential to screen for missiles, planes, and warships in lower space, serve as a medium for wartime communications, drop weapons to attack enemies, conduct electromagnetic interference, and deliver food or military supplies over a long distance. Chinese scientists have made great strides in near-space technology, such as sending a yellow-spotted river turtle 68,900 feet over the northwestern Xinjiang region, marking the first time an aerostat was able to bring a live animal into the stratosphere. Last year, a balloon brought a rocket more than 82,000 feet above the earth, making China a leader in the near space race.
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