A gigantic NASA balloon designed to carry science
instruments to the edge of space crashed during takeoff from Australia’s Alice
Springs launch site on Thursday, destroying a multimillion-dollar telescope.
The Nuclear Compton Telescope (NCT), owned by University of
California at Berkeley, was designed to study the polarization of gamma rays
and other astrophysical phenomena. It was serving as a test bed for instruments being
developed for the Advanced Compton Telescope, scheduled to be launched in 2015,
according to the project’s website.
NASA is still trying to sort out what happened, but a video
taken by an ABC News team shows the balloon’s undercarriage coming loose,
smashing through a fence and toppling an SUV before landing in pieces on the
“We just barely made it out without getting smashed,” a
bystander interviewed by ABC said. “It looks like the wind shifted and pushed
it further than they expected.”
When inflated, the balloon is about the size of a football
field and capable of carrying science instruments to an altitude of about 25
miles — above 99 percent of the atmosphere.
Thursday’s launch was the second
of three planned for the Alice Springs site this spring. The first mission,
which launched on April 15, carried the Tracking and Imaging Gamma Ray Experiment,
which searches the galactic center of the sky for gamma ray emissions. The
third flight, scheduled for May, will launch a Marshall Space Flight Center X-ray telescope known as HERO, though that could be delayed depending on
the results of the accident investigation, said Keith Koehler, a NASA spokesman at Wallops Flight Facility, which oversees the balloon program.
See the video from the moment the balloon drags the NCT into a parked car:
Photo credit: NASA