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On October 16, 2012, the granddaughter of one of Allen Epling’s houseguests spotted a shiny object in the sky. Epling, an amateur astronomer living in Pike County, Kentucky, grabbed his binoculars and spied a glimmering, tubelike shape hovering ominously high above. Along with his wife and guests, he watched it for more than two hours. “It wasn’t anything I recognized,” Epling later told a local reporter.

Plenty of others saw the object too: The Kentucky State Police received multiple reports of sightings. A couple of days later, the Appalachian News-Express ran a story headlined “Mystery Object in Sky Captivates Locals.” Regional television stations reported that government agencies professed ignorance. The story was picked up by CNN. And the UFO-loving website Ashtar Command Crew linked to the news as ostensible proof of continuing visits from the Galactic Federation fleet. Epling, for his part, didn’t jump to extraterrestrial conclusions. But still, what was it?

Rich DeVaul knows. Sitting in a conference room in Mountain View, California, he beams proudly as he runs a YouTube clip of one of the newscasts. The mysterious craft was his doing. Or, at least, the work of his Google team. The people in Pike County were witnessing a test of Project Loon, a breathtakingly ambitious plan to bring the Internet to a huge swath of as-yet-unconnected humanity—via thousands of solar-powered, high-pressure balloons floating some 60,000 feet above Earth.

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