Oregon company flies huge high-altitude balloons for aerospace research

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Sharp-eyed Portlanders spotted what appeared to be a weather balloon or similar device floating in the skies to the west of Portland Wednesday morning, prompting a flurry of photos and discussion on social media. KGW has confirmed the object is a scientific research balloon from Tillamook-based Near Space Corporation, which specializes in high-altitude balloons.

Near Space president Kevin Tucker said the balloon is part of a partnership with NASA and is flying on its intended course. The balloon is wind-powered and does not have a motor or anything hazardous on board.

KGW spoke to Near Space earlier this year to learn more about high-altitude balloons after a series of what were believed to be Chinese spy balloons drifted over US airspace. The company has operated out of Tillamook for more than 20 years, taking advantage of the large blimp hanger at a former Naval Air Station near the city. The coastal region also offers an ideal airspace with open ocean access and no commercial air traffic routes.

Weather and research balloons fly very high in the atmosphere, as much as 100,000 feet above the ground — more than twice the height of commercial airlines, which typically cruise at 30,000 to 40,000 feet. The balloons can be as tall as a five-story building, and while they’re somewhat at the mercy of the wind, Near Space staff said their flight trajectories can be very accurately modeled, and the company coordinates with the Federal Aviation Administration for every flight.

It stands to reason that Portlanders spotted the balloon in the morning — Near Space told KGW earlier this year that dawn is the ideal time to launch, because ground winds tend to be at their lowest and it provides the greatest amount of daylight time for operations.

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