Look! Up in the Sky! It's the TARS blimp!

(This is one of four stories about the unique sites to be seen along the 37-mile stretch of Highway 90 through the Chihuahuan Desert from Marfa, Texas, to Prada Marfa.)


Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a Tethered Aerostat Radar System blimp!

About 15 miles Highway 90, as you’re heading to Prada Marfa, look up and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see something entirely unexpected up in the sky. At first you might think it’s a weather balloon, or maybe a Martian saucer but as you get closer you realize it is indeed, a blimp.

Photo from beneath the Border Patrol blimp near the Mexican border outside Marfa, Texas
A shot from beneath the Border Patrol blimp near the Mexican border outside Marfa, Texas **

The second thing you realize is it’s not moving. And it’s entirely white.

There is a professional golf tournament in my area and I’ve seen the MetLife blimp many times flying overhead. This is obviously not your normal blimp.

This blimp is part of the US Customs and Border Protection Service’s border patrol program. It’s unmanned and tethered to the ground with a special nylon fiber cable so it won’t fly away. The station where this balloon is tethered is 20 miles northwest of Marfa, directly along Highway 90. It’s about the same distance east of the Texas/Mexico border. The blimp monitors the border by raising radar and other sensors to high altitude and sending the signals back to the ground. The radar equipment weighs about 2,200 pounds, capable of detecting aircraft at a range of 200 miles. Doing a little research, I was surprised to learn there are eight of these blimps along the US border, all the way from Yuma, Arizona, to Puerto Rico. They are officially known as the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS)

Photo of Border Patrol station from roadway.
The Border Patrol station monitoring the TARS blimp is just off Highway 90, 20 miles from Marfa. **

TARS began more than 30 years ago when the U.S. Customs Service started using the blimps to counter the rising number of low-flying small aircraft operated by drug smugglers. Each sweep of the onboard radar detects any aircraft flying within the blimp’s 200-mile range. Another thing you’ll notice about it is that, at 175 feet, these blimps are smaller than the big ones flying over sporting events that measure in at nearly 250 feet. In case you’re wondering, they are not armed, they are up in the sky entirely for surveillance. Literally, a bird’s eye view. And, the Border Patrol intentionally makes them visible. They want the bad guys to know they are there to provide a deterrent to them even trying to cross the border in those locations. The Border Patrol has a great website you can check out with all the lowdown about the blimps, how they work, photos, videos and even a map of where they are all located.


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**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address, alansheaven.com, or a link back to this page.


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