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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.
In dramatic video released by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the giant 400-foot balloon is seen just beginning to lift its payload, then the telescope gondola appears to unexpectedly come loose from its carriage. The telescopes crash through a fence and overturn a nearby parked sport utility vehicle before finally stopping.
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."
The unmanned research balloon was built by NASA's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas and expected to haul its two-telescope payload up to an altitude of about 120,000 feet. That's about 23 miles, though smaller home-built balloons have been built to reach high altitudes as well.