Giant NASA balloon crashes

A gigantic NASA balloon designed to
carry science instruments to the edge of space crashed during takeoff from
Australia’s Alice Springs launch site, destroying a multimillion-dollar
telescope.

The Nuclear Compton Telescope,
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 dramatic footage of the incident shows the balloon’s
undercarriage coming loose, smashing through a fence and toppling an SUV before
landing in pieces on the ground, just missing nearby spectators.

“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 per cent of the atmosphere. 

Ravi Sood, director of the Alice Springs Balloon Launching Centre, said scientists
involved in the NASA-sponsored project were extremely disappointed.

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

Thursday’s launch was the second of
three planned for the Alice Springs site this spring. The first mission, which
launched on 15 April, carried the Tracking and Imaging Gamma Ray Experiment,
which searches the galactic centre of the sky for gamma ray emissions. The
third flight, scheduled for May, will launch a Marshall Space Flight Centre
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.

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