Mesa 'UFO' no longer unidentified

Sunday, May 31, 2009 at Sunday, May 31, 2009

Forget those surreal sightings that disbelievers call flares or weather balloons.

This bright orange "UFO" actually came down in the Valley.

Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport officials have photographs and are pursuing the landing with the Federal Aviation Administration. clear pixel

"It was some kind of electronic device," airport spokesman Brian Sexton said of the plastic object whose owner was identified as Space Data Corporation, a Chandler firm whose products have logged 250,000 hours of flying time over the United States.

The research contraption was discovered by airport employees inside a foam container on the payload end of a bright orange parachute. The chute descended about 7 a.m. on a cargo apron at the airport about the time a local television station was reporting sightings of unidentified flying objects near Gateway.

"We launched a number of these balloon-type craft this morning," said Space Data's Chief Financial Officer, George Ritchie. "We send them up about 85,000 feet, and it makes them shine as if they're bright lights."

The parachutes are released from the balloons so their payloads can test a variety of Space Data "operations and procedures," including data relays from extremely remote locations with no other coverage possibility, Ritchie said.

The company's Website, spacedata.net, describes three of the technologies -- ever-shrinking electronics, industrial weather balloons and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) "to provide a safe and low-cost communications system that is particularly effective for remote locations."

The device that fell at Gateway apparently involves the SkySite Network, which consists of high-altitude, balloon-borne transceivers known as SkySite Platforms, which are launched every 24 hours.

Each SkySite Platform takes just 20 minutes to launch and rises to an altitude of 60,000 to 100,000 feet in about one hour, creating a coverage circle more than 400 miles in diameter.

Ritchie said SkySite Platforms are the only unmanned air vehicles approved by the FAA to operate commercially in the U.S. airspace.

But no so fast, say Gateway airport officials.

"We don't like anything dropping into the airport's airspace unless it's authorized," said Sexton.

"The matter is being pursued with the FAA."

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency would likely look into the incident once it receives a report from Gateway.

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