The photos were captured months before the Chinese spy balloon incident over the United States, but it is not possible to know if they could be related.
BlackSky, a private firm specializing in satellite imagery and geospatial intelligence, released photos of the Korla East Test Site, a remote base in the desert of northwestern China. The photos, taken in November 2022 but only released yesterday, show what could be a military airship in front of the facility’s giant hangar. According to the company, only two images, from among more than 1,000 images collected over the duration of one year, shows this airship on the ground.
The CNN, which first reported about these photos, consulted aerospace experts who confirmed that the image indeed shows an airship, estimated to be about 100 ft long, possibly equipped with dedicated propulsion and navigation capabilities, which would allow it to loiter over an area for an extended period. CNN also contacted defense officials which, while they did not comment on the matter, said we should expect they’re tracking the object, since it is visible on commercial imagery.
The photos were taken about three months before the Chinese spy balloon incident over the United States, however it is not possible to say if those are related. Anyway, the balloon shot down by the F-22s had similar dimensions, estimated to be about 130 ft wide, however the airship in the satellite photos has an elongated shape, more similar to a blimp.
The 2nd image as stated in the news release: pic.twitter.com/v7L0AbOISt
— BlackSky (@BlackSky_Inc) May 1, 2023
Experts interviewed by CNN mentions that, with these photos documenting the use of blimps also by the military, the People Liberation’s Army now is using all three types of airships: blimps, aerostats and free-floating balloons. While initially many of these were developed by research institutions and universities, it appears that they now transitioned under military control.
It is possible that the PLA has even activated a unit dedicated to these vehicles, as a number of patents involving airship technologies were recently reassigned to a new unit, named Unit 63660. Among these patents there is a cradle used to move airships, possibly spotted in another set of satellite photos from August, and a blimp similar to the one in the photos released yesterday.
Obviously, the satellite photos do now allow to discover what kind of payload this airship can carry. As you may remember, the balloon shot down in the US had a large payload with dish antennas and four electric motors that provided the balloon with the ability to maneuver.