Dramatic video of NASA balloon accident that destroys payload

By Phil Plait | April 29, 2010 5:17 pm

This is awful: during the launch of a high-altitude balloon, something went wrong. The balloon dragged the payload across the ground, destroying it, and in the meantime not doing any good to an SUV parked nearby:

This happened yesterday, in Australia. No one was hurt, but the payload apparently was totaled. It looks to me that the balloon got caught by some wind before they were quite ready to launch, and it pulled the payload off the crane. Seeing what it did to that SUV… yikes.

The balloon was carrying gamma-ray detectors as a testbed for a future NASA observatory. Gamma rays don’t penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere, so observatories have to be launched into space. The detectors on-board can be tested on the ground, but at some point need to get up above as much of the atmosphere as possible to see how they do in those conditions and observing actual astronomical sources. Balloons are the easiest and cheapest way to do that.

I know some folks who have done balloon launches like this, and they’ve told me it can be a little hairy. I trusted them, but until I saw that payload smash into and flip over that truck, I didn’t fully realize what they meant. Wow.

This is a setback for NASA and the team building the observatory. I don’t know how much, exactly, but I’m sure it will be months or even years to rebuild this. I can’t imagine much will be salvaged off this disaster.

I saw this earlier today, but no video was available to embed. So thanks to Tom’s Astronomy blog where I saw this, and Discovery News where I first heard about it.


Comments (45)

Links to this Post

  1. Magatopia Buzz | April 29, 2010
  1. Old Rockin' Dave

    Quick, search the wreckage for tiny alien corpses.

  2. Dave Regan

    The detectors on-board can be tested on the round => “ground”

  3. Sarah

    No Dave, it’s OK. The Earth is round.

  4. Astrofiend

    Wow – that was a cock-up of massive proportions. Painful to watch, yet I’m strangely drawn to it…

  5. Old Rockin' Dave

    “And wow! Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming toward me very fast? Very, very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide-sounding name like…ow…ound…round…ground! That’s it! That’s a good name – ground!
    I wonder if it will be friends with me?”

  6. Flip

    I would be nice if you provided a link to the video for those of us who block Flash and prefer our video from YouTube’s HTML5 feeds.

  7. This is what happens when you try to to launch stuff upside down.

    Seriously, though, suckage. It’s too bad that so much time and money is tied up into individual events like this, but what is the alternative? Can you send up 5 smaller observatories for the same cost and get the same quality observations?

  8. ASFalcon13

    Apologies to the unclothed rabbit, but the fact that this was a ballon payload rather than a spacecraft means that, from a monetary standpoint anyway, this probably was the smaller observatory.

  9. BigBadSis

    I didn’t know NASA has “spice dreams.” Gotta love that Australian accent!

  10. Mike

    Why does the balloon look silver/clear while in flight and have orange stripes on the ground?

  11. Yeah, that’s pretty much what I suspect, too.

  12. Hedgie

    @BigBagSis I dunno what you were listening to, but I clearly heard ‘Space Dreams’. It’s New Zealanders who have vowel issues, not Aussies ūüėČ

    I’m less concerned about the loss of equipment, and more by the apparent lack of safety consideration taken by the NASA staff. The fact that something like this could even happen, with an elderly couple sitting right bloody next to it is appalling as far as I am concerned.

  13. Even though there was a fence and some distance between the payload and the cars, you’d think that “scientists” from the “Balloon Launch Centre” would make it a point to clear the nearby _downwind_ range.

  14. TheInquisitor

    Is it just me or are the two oldies at about the 1 min mark actually smiling about their brush with death? Oh the humanity.

  15. Franco

    Notice how no one even mentions the obvious Ghost captured on film at the 1:42 mark.
    Another NASA cover-up, eh?

  16. Shoeshine Boy

    Now *that’s* some bad astronomy going on there!

  17. Marshall

    @11 Mike: The orange-and-white striped part is almost certainly the parachute. In normal operations, when the mission reaches its end the balloon releases the helium under remote control and the parachute gets the hardware back down to the ground — hopefully safely, but not necessarily so! Balloon missions have an uncanny knack for landing in the worst possible places: in rivers, on jagged rocks, stuck on top of mountains in Colorado at 8,000 feet requiring an air national guard helicopter to extract, etc. (that’s a true example from a balloon mission I worked on about a decade ago)

    As for big vs small missions, the falcon and rabbit are right on the money: The *smallest* possible space missions start at around $100M, and most are many times higher. Balloon missions on the other hand can be funded and flown for a couple million bucks.

    As disappointing as this is for the scientists involved, I predict they’ll be back on the sky a year from now. And I can’t help but feel some fond (if twisted) memories myself. One of my own first research jobs as an undergrad was working to rebuild and replace the electronics of a balloon that landed in a creek, and that launched me off into my career in astrophysics ever since. Let’s hope that other bright undergrads out there get a similar opportunity while piecing this poor thing back together!

  18. Cain

    @11 Mike

    The orange one has probably the parachute for the observatory. Once the balloon approaches the coast or a populated area the observatory is remotely separated from the balloon. The balloon then parachutes to the ground for collection.

  19. Cain

    oops… meant to say the observatory then parachutes to the ground for collection

  20. Astrotsarina

    OK, I’m being nitpicky, but she clearly said that the telescopes give “astronomers and scientists…”. What? Astronomers aren’t scientists? ūüėČ

  21. Buzz Parsec

    They always wait for a good weather forecast before launching this kind of balloon, sometimes for weeks, but I think once they’ve committed to launching it, there’s not much they can do if the wind suddenly springs up. I think it takes several hours to fill the balloon with Helium. I don’t know if they have a remote control mechanism to detach the balloon (which is pretty light and harmless) from the payload, which did all the damage, or maybe they tried it and it didn’t work. In the future, I hope they establish rules that say “if the wind exceeds X, then abort”, and require a remote control release if they don’t already have one. The balloon is much less expensive (and lighter, so less destructive) than the payload!

    They might have been very close to launch. The balloon *looks* only slightly filled, but it did have enough lift to be able to drag the payload a long way. When the balloon rises high into the atmosphere, it expands a great deal due to the reduced external pressure. It’s normal for it to look like that at launch time, and expand to a huge sphere at altitude.

    It does look like the cars were parked way too close, though. The man whose SUV was tipped over didn’t sound Australian to me; maybe he was one of the experimenters? The older couple definitely did have ozzie accents. Very lucky no one was hurt.

    I hope they use more caution and have better luck the next time…

  22. David

    So, is it just me or does the balloon look absolutely gigantic when it falls to the ground @1:41? Is it a perspective issue or are those NASA balloons really that huge?

  23. I don’t think that it is as much of a set back as it might appear. This was the second launch: the first went off, largely without incident, (it was a little harder to find the payload than they thought it would be) two weeks ago – see http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/04/19/2876085.htm

  24. Stanley H. Tweedle

    Blah! That’s so sad!

  25. MadScientist

    I’m still wondering how the balloon got away; ‘sloppy’ comes to mind but I wasn’t there and can’t check – maybe the crew has a valid excuse (but I really doubt it). Like they say, this isn’t rocket science. A typical procedure for a payload that size would be to check the weather forecasts (and these days you can use the Hysplit model too), then launch a radiosonde as you’re filling; if the conditions turn unfavorable you can always release the balloon (there’s no recovering the helium though).

  26. Stan9FOS

    Lead balloon, haha. A toast to the creative copy writers downunder. The footage of the actual balloon touching down (1:35) was very pretty. Almost looked like a CGI effect, but in the real world. Yes, I said almost – I’m not looking to start the “Great Balloon Coverup” internet meme, so you sit back down there, Bubba!

  27. Grand Lunar

    @10. BigBadSis

    Dang it, you beat me to it!

    @24 Dave

    I do believe the ballons are that huge.
    They expand as they rise as well, hence the appearence.

  28. That’s just heart-breaking to watch.

  29. bela okmyx

    I would love to see the insurance claim made by the SUV (or “Ute”, as they say in Oz) owner.

    “My car was hit by an astronomical observatory being dragged by a runaway helium balloon!”

    “Yeah… right, mate. You were pounding the Foster’s, pulled over to have a chunder, and sideswiped a roo.”

    “No, seriously, it was a NASA gamma-ray detector!”

    “I think your shrimp’s slipped off the barbie, mate. Claim denied.”

  30. Darrell E

    Ouch! Sorry for the setback. Balloons can definitely be dangerous.

    Back in 1979 and 1980 I crewed for a hot air balloon during the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival. We never had any major problems launching our balloon, though I’ve seen some pretty hairy lauch accidents.

    Landing was by far the most dangerous though. It is a bit counter intuitive, but a balloon weighs alot and therefore has a lot of inertia once it gets moving at even a modest rate. You may think that because it floats that it is light, and compared to the surrounding air you would be correct, but in absolute terms you would be dead wrong. When a balloon is floating free it is quite peaceful, but touching down can be very violent.

  31. John Doe

    @11 Mike:

    That orange thing IS the parachute. The parachute is about 30-40 feet long and is below the balloon, yet above the payload

    @32 Darrel:

    That looks like a zero pressure (vs Super Pressure) balloon probably carrying a 2-3 ton payload. The balloon material itself probably weights in at a ton alone.

    @27 MadScientist:
    It is not that simple. It IS that simple if you are launching radiosondes, as they are puny in size and weight. That balloon train may very well be 1000 ft long, and the whole thing weigh 3 tons or more (including balloon weigh, helium, payload, etc). As to why the balloon got away: The surface fluxes can be drastically different than the lower boundary layer fluxes. Two hundred feet can make all the difference in the world.

    @ All: The whole ballooning side of NASA is rather small in comparison to everything else NASA does. The whole launch may have cost (not including instruments) from 1-2 million USD. If you think this launch was wasteful, Look at the shuttle program. One launch there cost 1.3 BILLION (in 2005: c.f. Wikipedia). That means you could launch 1,300 of these balloon before equaling the cost of ONE shuttle launch.

    I have worked with NASA on these enormous balloon before, and it is more art than science to get the payloads off. Once they unbox the balloon (it comes in a huge crate), they HAVE to fly it. It takes about 2 hours to inflate the balloon, and there are meteorologists on scene to assess the weather constantly. From the looks of it, a high (>7m/s) wind came up as they were about to release the balloon and it just took off. Im sure NASA will rebuild the instrument and try to re-fly it in either Kiruna Sweden, or McMurdo Antarctica (two other launch sites).

    Having worked with a few of those NASA guys, I applaud your efforts. Having seen the huge excesses of waste elsewhere in NASA, you are one of the few programs I would would keep. Keep up the good work for the scientific community

  32. Michael Swanson

    Thanks, your input John Doe. It’s a thoughful rebuttal to the incessant, flippant criticism that people like vomit all over the internet. See an accident? Video of a mistake? Well, the people involved must have been grossly incompetent!


  33. diogenes

    @Johndoe Yes, thanks for your input. The NASA balloon program IS highly efficient compared to things like the shuttle. I’d say either your analysis (sudden high wind as they neared the release) 0r a premature release due to mechanical or human failure would be my first guesses on the cause (of course, these reasons could be intertwined). I have to agree that allowing spectators downwind was definitely not smart though.

  34. JSug

    I’m more amazed that it appeared to be dragging the crane across the ground before it broke loose. That crane must weight at least 5 tons. Or tonnes, since it’s in Oz.

  35. MadScientist

    @David #24: The balloons for this size payload are unbelievably huge. The helium only fills a tiny part when on the ground; as the helium expands at the lower pressures (higher altitudes) the balloon becomes fully inflated – in fact overinflated so there are huge holes in the bottom to allow the balloon to maintain the same pressure as the environment. For a flight altitude of 40km you’re looking at an expansion of roughly 100 times (but not quite since it’s also pretty cold up there). The balloon can be about 500′ diameter when fully inflated (actual size depends on exactly what was ordered for the job).

  36. MadScientist

    @John Doe: I’m not so sure; it looks like the balloon was already released and the crane fell over when it was tugged. I’m very skeptical of the ‘freak gust did it’ excuse – it looks like whoever was in charge didn’t care to take a few minutes to compute the loads necessary to keep everything safe on launch much less factor in a typical gust. Not to mention as others have pointed out, what the hell were people doing with vehicles parked downwind? When launching from a crane rather than a truck you can safely bet the payload swings and dives an awful lot more.

    I don’t understand what you’re saying about the radiosondes – are you saying that you never release radiosondes while preparing to launch a large payload? If so that’s certainly news to me; every other balloon team I’ve known have launched sondes even for much smaller and cheaper payloads. A complete launch of a sonde only costs about $2-3k depending on payload and that’s nothing compared to the cost of the big payload or even the balloon. Better to lose a $200k balloon than to attempt a launch when the weather’s changing.

  37. John Doe

    @35 digenes: Typically, there is a quarter-mile or so circle around the balloon to keep incidents like that from happening. Im not sure why they didn’t have that there. With 100% confidence, I can now say that they will have a very strict policy of a larger circle enforced.

    @24 David: That balloon IS enormous. It is rather hard to fully contemplate. If the balloon makes it to float (at around 100,000ft to 120,000ft), you can see it in the sky with the naked eye.

    As #37 MadScientist stated, it is not even full: it will fully inflate once it hits float. Though the balloon type he is referring to is a called a “zero pressure” balloon. In that type of balloon there is no real pressure between the inside of the balloon and the outside. Its more like a very large trash bag holding some helium, or your ‘garden variety’ hot air balloons. They move up and down several thousand feet depending on the air temperature, and they constantly, though purposefully, ‘leak’ helium. To keep them up there longer, they typically carry ballast (tiny steel shot the size of a human hair) and slowly release it to keep pushing the balloon up.

    There is another type of balloon named a ‘super pressure’, and as the name implies, it is more like a helium balloon you find at parties. Super Pressure balloons have the added advantage that they only move up and down a couple hundred feet through the day/night cycle.

    @38 MadScientist: It appears that the balloon was still attached to the crane, and when it started to pull the crane over, they had to disconnect. At that point, the upper level winds had “pushed the balloon over”, so releasing the payload essentially just dumped it on the ground with lots of slack in the line as the balloon was not directly over the payload and crane.

    As to the sounding: even a sounding 10 minutes prior would be of no help as the balloon would have been inflated (a point of no return). Once the bubble is inflated (and basically pinned to the ground so it does not catch the wind), you have a limited amount of time before you have to get the whole balloon train completely vertical and then release it. As to cutting the balloon on the ground, that is a case by case. As the weather constantly changes, they would rather release it and hope for the best rather than wait for a perfect launch. On all of the balloon launches I have been at, and had electronics on: perfect weather conditions never had occurred.

    With all of that said, I totally agree with you about the people downwind. At every launch I have been to, I have been told to stay UPWIND for the exact reason this video shows. You don’t want the payload falling on you.

  38. Brian Too

    Did he (announcer) say “lost it’s mornings”?

    Sure sounds like he did.

  39. mike burkhart

    Did any one report a UFO crash like at Roswell? Just kidding. Acidents happen .Even NASA isn’t perfect after all they have lost several space probes.It is a disappontment when equment is lost, but we get over it and move on. A copel of years ago I acidently broke my telescope ,but I bought another one.

  40. Jeffersonian

    It doesn’t embed for me; can somebody post a link?

  41. Keith Harwood

    These people look like a bunch of amateurs to me. You don’t launch a balloon from a static crane. You have the payload on a truck downwind from where you are filling the bubble, with the balloon and parachute between them. When the bubble is released you drive the truck downwind until the balloon is vertical and at rest in the airmass. Then you release it and it goes straight up. That’s the way we did it at Mildura forty years ago. The only drama was, could we get it away before the morning flight from Melbourne arrived.

  42. Rod

    You should check out what Italians did with a stratospheric balloon!… A successful (yet risky) launch of a hi-tech autonomous plane.



  43. greg

    I can’t help but wonder how the guy is going to explain the damage to his vehicle to his insurance company and if it will be covered.


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