$2 Million Telescope Wrecked in NASA Balloon Mishap

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A huge NASA balloon loaded with a telescope built to scan the sky at wavelengths invisible to the human eye crashed in the Australian outback April 29, destroying the $2 million astronomy experiment and just missing nearby onlookers, according to Australian media reports.

In dramatic video released by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC), the giant 121-meter balloon is seen just beginning to lift its payload when the telescope gondola appears to unexpectedly come loose from its carriage. The telescope crashes through a fence and overturns a sport utility vehicle parked nearby before finally stopping.

“No one was injured. A mishap investigation board is being convened,” NASA officials said in a statement after the accident.

The attempted balloon telescope launch took place at the Alice Springs Balloon Launching Centre, near the town of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia.

The wayward balloon overturned one automobile but missed an occupied car parked nearby.

The balloon was carrying the Nuclear Compton Telescope (NCT), a gamma-ray telescope built by astronomer Steven Boggs and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley to study astrophysical sources in space. The telescope was dragged about 137 meters before coming to a stop, NASA officials said.

“Today was a terrible day for a lot of people,” wrote Eric Bellm, a graduate astronomy student at Berkeley, in a blog chronicling the science mission. “For the NCT team, we’ve poured our hearts into this instrument for years. It was an almost unfathomable shock to find ourselves cleaning up the wreckage of our gondola rather than watching it lift off towards space.”

The unmanned research balloon was built by NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, to haul its two-telescope payload up to an altitude of about 37 kilometers.

In his account of the crash, Bellm said an investigation into the balloon’s launch failure will be performed, though a first glance found that at least some of the components for the Nuclear Compton Telescope appear to have survived relatively intact. The science team has cleaned up the wreckage and returned it to a staging hangar, he added.

“Damage to the NCT payload, project assets and area surroundings are currently being assessed,” NASA officials said in their statement.

Ravi Sood, director of the Alice Springs Balloon Launching Centre and a professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales, confirmed that no one was hurt in the incident, but added that sometimes balloon launches go awry.

“Ballooning, that’s the way it happens on occasions but it is very, very disappointing. Gut-wrenching actually,” he told ABC.

The failed balloon launch in Australia marked NASA’s second balloon science campaign last month at the remote site. On April 15, NASA’s balloon science program launched the Tracking and Imaging Gamma Ray Experiment, or TIGRE, a gamma-ray telescope, to search the galactic center of the sky for emissions from radioactive materials, NASA officials said.

That launch, which sent the telescope and its balloon to an altitude of nearly 39 kilometers, went according to plan, the space agency said.

The balloon’s next payload to fly, an X-ray telescope called Hero aimed at mapping the galactic center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, was targeted for May, Australian officials added.