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West Texas Border Surveillance Blimp Is Back

The Tethered Aerostat Radar System in West Texas is one of six border surveillance blimps along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

By Carlos Morales

If you’re heading out of town this week for the holiday, you may spot an old familiar sight on Highway 90, heading west.

After months of being out of commission, Customs and Border Protection’s Tethered Aerostat Radar System -- TARS -- is back. In November, CBP brought in a $4 million replacement blimp, which now rests near Valentine.

The surveillance balloon has now gone through safety checks and is in use, hovering thousands of feet in the air to detect low-flying aircrafts that may be smuggling narcotics.

Earlier this summer, the blimp deflated when a safety restraint broke, allowing the balloon to rotate toward and crash into nearby maintenance trucks. 

"The contact of the envelope material with the trucks punctured and ripped the balloon nearly in half, causing a rapid and catastrophic deflation of the balloon," said a CBP spokesman.

The balloon, however, was nearing what CBP calls its "end-of-life inspection." TARS have a limited lifespan of 5 to 6 years. The West Texas blimp was "near the 6 year mark" when it deflated.

"The new envelope, that was already planned to replace the old one, was prepared for re-inflation," said a CBP spokesman.

The aerostat blimp is one of six along the U.S.-Mexico border.


Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.