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Multi-million dollar military surveillance blimp on the loose, F-16 jets scramble to find it

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Posted at 12:37 PM, Oct 28, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-28 15:08:33-04

A blimp-like aircraft associated with NORAD’s surveillance of the East Coast has become untethered from its mooring in Maryland and it’s now flying over Pennsylvania, according to NORAD spokesman Lt. Joe Mavrocki.

Two F-16 fighter jets scrambled from the New Jersey National Guard are tracking the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System aerostat — or JLENS, a Pentagon official told CNN.

JLENS can remain aloft and operational for up to 30 days at a time.

The aerostat, which is roughly 243 feet long, came loose from its tethering in Maryland, outside Washington, D.C.

The blimp is drifting at an altitude of 16,000 feet yet authorities are warning anyone who sees it to keep a safe distance and call 911.

It’s unclear what the current danger is to the public or how the blimp will be brought back down.

When aloft, the aircraft use sophisticated radar to see up to 340 miles in any direction, which covers an area from North Carolina to the Canadian border, according to the Baltimore Sun.

It can be used to track ships at sea and cars on land.

Authorities say the system is intended to watch for and direct fire on incoming cruise missiles and other threats. NORAD is running a three-year exercise to test its effectiveness in the National Capital Region.

The Baltimore Sun reported, the effort has proved controversial.

Reports state, after 17 years of research and $2.7 billion in funding, the system has been hobbled by defective software, poor reliability and vulnerability to bad weather.

The blimp has given rise to a few jokes on social media as well.

Raytheon, which produces the aircraft, described the likelihood that the tether would break as “very small.”

“The chance of that happening is very small because the tether is made of Vectran and has withstood storms in excess of 100 knots,” the Raytheon website states. “However, in the unlikely event it does happen, there are a number of procedures and systems in place which are designed to bring the aerostat down in a safe manner.”