NASA Balloon Crashes in Australia

Gamma ray astronomy took a hit today, when a balloon carrying a NASA telescope toward space crashed back to Earth, sideswiping an SUV, narrowly missing onlookers, and wrecking its rather pricey payload.

The “other” ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, caught video of the failure to launch:

The huge, long-duration balloon was supposed to lift up the Nuclear Compton Telescope, which was designed to look for astrophysical objects that emit gamma rays, the most energetic form of light.

Gamma rays are known to come from supernovae, pulsars, and active supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies—and astronomers think strange flashes called gamma ray bursts could be coming from as-yet unidentified sources.

There are a couple space telescopes in place that map the gamma ray sky, including the most recently launched Fermi mission. But NASA also has a history of using balloon-based instruments to look for gamma rays.

In fact, it was balloon experiments launched in the 1980s that confirmed everyone on Earth is made of stardust: Supernova explosions produce and seed the universe with heavy elements, including the iron in your blood and the calcium in your bones.

NCT was designed to look specifically for light signatures of gamma rays coming from unstable elements created by supernovae, a goal that ultimately informs our understanding of star life cycles and the origins of matter.

According to the NCT mission proposal, long-duration balloons are effective carriers for such experiments, since they “allow payloads to get above 99% of the atmosphere to perform satellite-class observations for 1-2 weeks at a time.”
In a similar setup, a NASA device called the Absolute Radiometer for Cosmology, Astrophsyics, and Diffuse Emission prepares for its balloon ride.

—Picture courtesy NASA/GSFC

And that’s presumably well below the cost of building an orbiter and launching it into space … although with a price tag in the tens of millions of dollars, NCT wasn’t exactly cheap.

The telescope had a successful run mapping gamma ray sources last year after taking off from New Mexico, and it was meant to get a different take on the night sky after rising above Australia.

“By launching from Alice Springs, we obtain one of the best views in the world of the center of our Milky Way galaxy,” team member and grad student Eric Bellm of UC Berkeley wrote on the mission’s blog.

The balloon that crashed today was supposed to get as high as almost 25 miles (40 kilometers) above the ground.

But for unknown reasons, as the balloon was lifting off, the gondola carrying NCT came loose, hit the launch rig, and tumbled across the landscape, scattering the telescope’s components as well as crashing through a few unfortunate obstacles.

It’ll take a full investigation to tell what exactly went wrong. In the meantime, NCT members are literally picking up the pieces left of their years of hard work.

“Today was a terrible day for a lot of people,” Bellm wrote on the blog, where he describes some initial impressions about the aftermath. Although a few core parts seem undamaged, Bellm writes that the telescope’s electronics bay and a few other bits are pretty much lost causes.

“Many of these systems have been tested and used for decades. They have become so familiar that their loss feels oddly personal,” he wrote.

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