When two unidentified white dots appeared in the bright blue Kansas City skies Thursday evening, some residents were preparing for first contact.
“We honestly have no explanation for the floating objects over Kansas City,” the National Weather Service in Kansas City tweeted out in response to numerous calls and tweets about the anomalies, fueling speculation of what exactly people were seeing.
Videos of the two objects from different parts of the city, as well as in GIFs, flooded the weather service’s replies.
One Twitter user shared a video from Olathe, Kansas, shot on June 4 showing that this was not an isolated incident.
So what were those mysterious objects?
Turns out the sky riders were “Thunderhead” balloons from the Raven Aerostar tech company and part of a not-secret government project: A June 18 tweet from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency announced their launch.
“Last night, DARPA launched 3 balloons from Cumberland, Maryland, in a flight test for the Adaptable Lighter Than Air [program],” the tweet read. “Over the next few days, ALTA will demonstrate capability for wind-borne navigation of a lighter-than-air vehicle over extended ranges.”
The polyethylene balloons are built to traverse the skies for more than 100 days at a time using solar power and other navigational technology, weathering the harsh winds and conditions of the earth’s stratosphere. The balloons use the earth’s powerful gusts more than 20 kilometers above the planet’s surface to navigate the skies. According to Raven’s website, these balloons can be used for anything including surveillance, communication, research and development, satellite alternatives and more.
Besides working with government agencies like DARPA, Raven has also provided materials to private companies like Google.
Most recently, Google used the tech as part of a philanthropic effort to bring internet access to areas that lack the proper infrastructure for modern network capabilities. In 2017, the balloons were used to bring LTE connectivity to more than 100,000 people in Puerto Rico during the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
This wouldn’t be the first time these kinds of balloons were mistaken for extraterrestrial visitors. As early as 2012, onlookers stared mystified by these slow moving white objects in states like Tennessee, Virginia and South Dakota.
For the skeptics out there, the Twitter account for stratospheric balloon enthusiast website StratoCat.com tweeted out links for people who want to track the balloons on their journey west.
Cover: A couple views the downtown skyline as a storm cloud approaches at the Liberty Memorial, Friday, March 24, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)