NASA's Most Ambitious Scientific Balloon Collapsed After Two Days Aloft

By Sarah Zhang on at

Welp, this is disastrous. A giant, state-of-art balloon carrying a telescope to detect gamma rays invisible to human eyes was supposed to fly over Antarctica for 100 days—NASA's longest and most ambitious scientific balloon mission ever. Instead, the balloon sprung a leak almost immediately, taking down the entire mission with it.

The instrument aboard, the Compton Spectrometer and Imager or COSI, was looking for gamma rays emanating from black holes, pulsars, and other in the interesting things cosmos.

Just as importantly, COSI was being carried aloft by NASA's new superpressure balloon, which was supposed stay in the air for more than 100 days for this mission, twice the current record. The massive balloon weighed 2,267 kilos and had a volume of nearly 19 million cubic feet. It launched over McMurdo Station in Antarctica on December 28th (GMT).

For all its technical marvels, the balloon started leaking its first day in the air. Instead of taking any chances, the team ended the mission early two days in, and the payload landed smoothly 350 miles from McMurdo. In the next week, the team hopes to fly out to the site and recover whatever data and hardware they can from COSI.

Without knowing the status of any of the equipment, it's hard to say what went wrong or what can still be salvaged. In any case, it's a bust for now.

The unfortunate scientists working on COSI have had a string of disastrous luck. The balloon carrying COSI was originally slated to launch last year, but was delayed after the government shutdown screwed up the 2013-2014 Antarctica research season. And before that, in 2010, the predecessor to COSI crash landed in the Australian outback. Seriously, let's wish them a better year to come. [Nature, COSI Blog]

Top image: COSI and its balloon at the launch. Screenshot via YouTube