99 Red Balloons: US Air Base Launching Slew of Weather Balloons as Scrutiny Intensifies over Flying Objects

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An airman releases a weather balloon at Eglin Air Force Base.
A member of the Special Tactics Training Squadron releases a weather balloon during Emerald Warrior, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Feb. 29, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Erik Cardenas)

Numerous red balloons floating off the coast of Florida's panhandle this week may be an unwelcome and alarming sight for some residents amid recent reports of American fighter jets shooting down unfamiliar flying objects.

But, according to Eglin Air Force Base, it's just part of a planned weather experiment by the Naval Postgraduate School. The base said a little over a dozen red balloons will be set free in the winter sky.

"Each day, balloons will be released between 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. to collect weather data for a Naval Postgraduate School research project to understand the physical interaction between the lower atmosphere and the upper ocean," the base said in a Feb. 10 press release.

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The balloons started being released on Saturday from Topsail Hill Preserve State Park near Santa Rosa Beach and will continue through Feb. 20, according to the press release.

Ilka Cole, a spokesperson for Eglin Air Force Base, said there was no concern about raising alarm with the local community, adding that residents in the surrounding area have become accustomed to the base releasing balloons.

"Release of small weather balloons is part of our daily operations," Cole said in an emailed statement to Military.com. "The local public is accustomed to Eglin conducting these missions. We notified the public to ensure they were aware the balloons were not connected to current events."

Eglin's notice about the weather balloons is just one example of how there are often numerous floating objects in America's airspace on any given day.

But increased tensions and attention have been paid to these floating objects -- balloons in particular -- since early this month.

On Feb. 4, American fighter jets shot down off the coast of South Carolina a maneuverable balloon from the People's Republic of China that was allegedly equipped with a payload designed to collect surveillance on the U.S. after it had spent days floating across the country.

On Feb. 10, the day Eglin's balloon exercise was announced, U.S. fighter jets intercepted and shot down an aerial object over the coast of Alaska.

On Sunday, an "unidentified object" was shot down with a missile by U.S. fighter jets over Lake Huron.

Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, told the press during a briefing Sunday that, since the Feb. 4 shootdown, there has been more attention being paid to America's skies, which are littered with all sorts of floating objects.

"In light of the People's Republic of China balloon that we took down last Saturday, we have been more closely scrutinizing our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we've detected over the past week," Dalton said. "We also know that a range of entities, including countries, companies, research organizations, operate objects at these altitudes for purposes that are not nefarious, including legitimate research."

The National Weather Service alone releases around 92 balloons every single day in the United States and its territories. They can float to altitudes of around 100,000 feet, according to the weather agency.

-- Travis Tritten contributed to this report.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

Related: Military Jets Shoot Down 'Object' Over Northern Alaska Just Days After China Spy Balloon

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