Florida couple spots mystery object floating over Ocala National Forest

Loon balloon belongs to network of traveling balloons delivering internet

By Clay LePard - Reporter

While kayaking in the Alexander Springs recreation area of the Ocala National Forest last month, Don Brouillard and his wife Ginny spotted something up above that wasn't nature's work.

This nature photographer started to point his lens toward the sky, at a balloon-like object they couldn't identify.

"My wife spotted a small white dot in the sky," Brouillard said. "There the mystery began. You try not to think of UFO's and things like that, but you go back and forth between some high-tech we're unaware of. We're pretty sure it was something high-tech that was deployed. That's when we contacted Channel 6."

Over the course of three weeks, News 6 contacted multiple companies and agencies about the balloon. All said they were unaware of who owned the balloon and were unable to ascertain why the balloon was soaring over Central Florida.

The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversee the Alexander Springs area and the Ocala National Forest, said they were unaware of the balloon and no permit was given for it.

National Weather Service offices in Melbourne and Jacksonville both denied ownership of the balloon.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense known as DARPA, told News 6 the balloon did not belong to the agency.

The U.S. Navy, which utilizes a bombing range at the Ocala National Forest, was also unaware of the balloon and had no knowledge of what it could be. 

A representative with the FAA told News 6 it was unlikely the balloon was an item they were aware of flying at the time.

Finally, officials with a company called Loon told News 6 the balloon was likely theirs.

Since 2013, Loon has launched a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, twice as high as commercial airplane, to help people in underserved areas get internet access. In short, Loon works with cellphone providers to expand their reach.

Loon is owned by Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google.

"We did have a number of balloons in the general area during that time frame, so it was likely a Loon balloon," Loon representative Scott Coriell said.

Usually, the floating cell towers travel over South America and Africa after being launched from sites in Nevada and Puerto Rico.

"Depending on how the winds are blowing, the path sometimes does take us over the continental U.S., including parts of Florida," Coriell said. "The balloons can actually be quite difficult to see with the naked eye, unless the conditions are just right. Although difficult to see from the ground, each balloon carries with it a transponder so it can be seen by other aircraft and local air traffic control."

The balloons can reliably last for more than 100 days in the stratosphere, according to Loon's website.

When the balloon is at the end of its service the Loon team tracks the balloon location using GPS and coordinates with the local air traffic control to bring the balloon safely to the ground.

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