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.
In dramatic video released by the Australian Broadcasting Corp., 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 overturns a nearby parked sport utility vehicle before finally stopping.
"No one was injured. A mishap investigation board is being convened," NASA officials said in a statement released late Thursday.
The attempted balloon telescope launch took place at the Alice Springs Balloon Launching Center, near the town of Alice Springs in the northern territory of Australia.
The wayward balloon overturned one car, but missed another that was 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," the Australian Broadcasting Corp. quoted Davies as saying.
The balloon was carrying the Nuclear Compton Telescope, or NCT, a gamma-ray telescope built by astronomer Steven Boggs and his colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley to study astrophysical sources in space. The telescope was dragged about 450 feet (137 meters) before finally coming to a stop, NASA officials said.
"Today was a terrible day for a lot of people," Eric Bellm, a graduate astronomy student at UC Berkeley, wrote 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, and was expected to haul its payload up to an altitude of about 120,000 feet (36,576 meters). That's about 23 miles (37 kilometers).
In his account of the crash, Bellm said an investigation into the balloon's launch failure will be performed, though an initial 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.
Ravi Sood, director of the Alice Springs Balloon Launching Center and a professor at Australia's University of New South Wales, confirmed that no one was hurt in the incident, but added that balloon launches can sometimes go awry.
"Ballooning, that's the way it happens on occasions, but it is very, very disappointing. Gut-wrenching actually," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
The failed balloon launch in Australia marked NASA's second balloon science campaign this month at the remote site. On April 15, NASA's balloon science program launched the Tracking and Imaging Gamma Ray Experiment, a gamma-ray telescope, to search the galactic center of the sky for emissions from radioactive materials.
That launch, which sent the telescope and its balloon to an altitude of 127,000 feet (38,709 meters), went according to plan, the space agency said.
The balloon's next payload to fly, an X-ray telescope called HERO that is aimed at mapping the galactic center for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, was targeted for May, Australian officials said.