(CNN) A giant blimp built by the Chinese military has been spotted on a remote site for the first time Exclusive new satellite images obtained by CNN of the desert in northwest China.
Space experts say the images were taken three months ago Chinese spy balloon The shooting down off the coast of South Carolina would mark a significant advance in China’s aircraft carrier program, demonstrating a craft more versatile and maneuverable than previously seen or known.
Images taken by US satellite imaging company BlackSky in November 2022 show a 100-foot-long blimp in the middle of a nearly kilometer-long runway at a desert military compound in northwest China. CNN provided the image to several aerospace experts, who confirmed it shows a blimp and runway, a pivot point used to launch airships, and a large, nearly 900-foot airship hangar.
Jamie Jacobs, executive director of the Oklahoma Aerospace Institute, said such a blimp could be used as a “submarine of the sky” and appears to have the dedication and navigation capabilities that would allow it to hover in one area for long periods of time.
“This is the next leap for them in terms of engineering and support of research funding in that direction,” Jacobs said.
CNN reached out to several U.S. intelligence officials who acknowledged knowledge of the Chinese base, but would not talk about it or the blimp.
A senior Defense Department official declined to comment on what threats the blimp represented in China’s arsenal, but said that since it was known, the Pentagon would know.
“You can expect that we are tracking the object through satellite images,” the official said.
The CIA declined a request for comment. The National Security Council did not respond to a request.
China’s ‘Near Space’ Project
The spy balloon incident from January drew significant attention to China’s aerial program, revealing just how effective airships can be for its spying operations. A step 2018 report According to the Rand Corporation on the country’s modern warfare strategy, these types of airships appeal to the Chinese because they are “smaller than satellites … and provide more accurate intelligence,” in addition to being “more vulnerable to destruction” than aircraft.
While China is not alone in its use of airships — the US military has used aerostats — the discovery now confirms that the PLA program uses all three types of airships: blimps, aerostats and free-floating balloons.
Eli Hayes, a researcher who has studied the Chinese airship program for years, said the blimp’s appearance at a Chinese military facility marks a significant shift in Chinese blimp technology and research — and it’s no longer just civilian.
“People don’t talk about these potential applications or use cases,” Hayes told CNN, adding that past Chinese flights and achievements have been built by research institutes and universities. While it’s unclear whether those companies helped produce the film, Hayes notes that some are known to have deep ties to the People’s Liberation Army, and at least one has been on the US sanctions list for decades.
CNN asked China’s defense ministry about the blimp and its purpose, but did not immediately receive a response. Five days of May Day holiday in China.
Additional satellite images and analysis of the site suggest that the PLA has significantly higher goals for its base and its airship program.
“If I had to guess, [this blimp is] Maybe some testing,” said William Kim, an observation balloon expert at The Marathon Initiative, a nonprofit military and diplomatic research organization.
Where does the airship program fit in? of the Chinese Army The overall organizational structure remains a mystery, although the patents recently created a unit to oversee the technology.
According to Hayes, several patents covering airship technologies were recently transferred to a new PLA unit — Unit 63660. A CNN review of Chinese patents confirms that the new unit holds many patents related to airship technology and storage, which were recently reassigned from the previous PLA unit.
According to a CNN review of hundreds of satellite images, when the PLA first built the 900-foot hangar in 2013, there was no activity around it for years. When winter storms blanket the desert floor with snow, the snow around most of the runway and hangar sits largely undisturbed while the rest of the campus and roads are plowed.
Jacobs told CNN that the cavernous hangar was unlikely to have been built for the blimp seen in the satellite image.
“This blimp hangar is sized for a much larger aircraft than what you have here for this particular vehicle,” he said, an indication that the blimp could be a test vehicle or support mission.
In 2020, a large cradle-like device was spotted on a nearly kilometer-long runway. The cradle is so large — roughly 400 feet long and 160 feet wide — that even the relatively small blimp seen in satellite images would be unlikely to use it, Jacobs says.
The cradle bears a distinct resemblance to the Chinese patent invented by Hayes, which holds a large stratospheric plane.
Additional activity at the site continues to increase, as well as the footprint of the hangar complex. Construction continues, including underground excavation and foundation pouring, additional satellite images provided to CNN by BlackSky.
It’s unclear what their intentions are, but Hayes says a truly large aircraft emerging from the hangar is a key indicator that China is indeed advancing its airship program.
“Especially on this site, I’d like to see a really big plane,” Hayes said.
CNN’s Steven Jiang contributed to this report