U’s NASA balloon telescope reported missing

Nickalas Tabbert

The balloon telescope sent to rural Texas by the University of Minnesota earlier this week has gone missing.

A team of researchers were waiting for the truck that was supposed to arrive in Palestine, Texas at 8 a.m. Monday, the Star Tribune said.

Intended for NASA-funded projects, the balloon-borne telescope was to be used to measure the universe's most minute fluctuations.

"Your guess is as good as mine," said Danny Ball, the site manager at the NASA-run Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility about 80 miles southeast of Dallas.

Replacing the balloon would cost more than $500,000 – not including labor, said University researcher Asad Aboobaker.  Researchers have spent six or seven years working on the balloon, he said.

Minneapolis-based trucking company Copeland Trucking tracked the truck driver's cell phone to a truck stop just outside of Dallas before the signal disappeared, the Tribune said.  A second phone belonging to the driver was found nearby at a fast-food restaurant.

The driver of the truck said the vehicle was stolen Monday from a Dallas motel, according to Hutchins police.  Neither the driver nor the trucking company reported the theft to Hutchins police, NBC 5 Dallas-Forth Worth said.

But in Dallas, auto theft detectives have opened an investigation, said Sgt. Jerry Mitchell.

Captain Steve Perry, of the Hutchins Police Department, said the trucking company picked up the truck Wednesday from the truck stop.

The telescope was to be tested and calibrated in Texas before being shipped to Antarctica, where it would fly, by balloon, more than 100,000 feet in the air, the Tribune said.  The equipment detects tiny traces of energy waves – possibly from the universe’s Big Bang – and levels of polarized dust.

To the average person, the equipment “isn’t anything all that exotic,” Ball said.  “It’s of no use to anyone except as scrap.  You’d have to be pretty desperate to use it for that.”

Ball said it's ironic that a piece of equipment designed to study the furthest reaches of the universe is subject of a mystery so close to home.

"I'm feeling like I'm in the twilight zone," he said.