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Humongous, expensive NASA balloon crashes in Australia

The unmanned NASA balloon, designed to scan the sky for gamma rays, crashed during takeoff, smashing through a fence and flipping over an SUV.

By Tariq MalikSPACE.com Managing Editor / April 29, 2010

This April 16 photo shows a giant NASA science balloon being inflated at the launch site near Alice Springs, Australia. The balloon crashed during takeoff Thursday smashing its multi-million dollar payload.

AFP

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

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In dramatic video released by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the giant 400-foot (121-meter) balloon is seen just beginning to lift its payload, then the telescope gondola appears to unexpectedly come loose from its carriage. The telescope crashes through a fence and overturn a nearby parked sport utility vehicle before finally stopping.

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.

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The wayward balloon overturned one car, but missed another parked nearby with local Alice Springs couple Stan and Betty Davies, who had come to watch the launch, still inside.

"We were sitting in our car and preparing to move it out of the way and we were actually about a foot of being wiped out," ABC quoted Davies as saying.

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, California to study astrophysical sources in space.

"Today was a terrible day for a lot of people," wrote Eric Bellm, a graduate astronomy student at the UC 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."