Missing ‘Big Bang’ Antarctic Telescope Found

by Nancy Atkinson on June 1, 2012

University of Minnesota faculty and students pose in front of a telescope that, for a nerve-wracking couple of days, went missing aboard a truck while it was being delivered to the NASA-run Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas. The picture was taken in 2009 at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. (Courtesy Shaul Hanany, University of Minnesota)

Astronomers and students from the University of Minnesota hoping to search for radiation left over from the Big Bang instead spent the past few days looking for their telescope – a 6,000 lb (2729 kg) behemoth of a science experiment. Just how does a telescope that big go missing? You could ask the truck driver who was supposed to deliver it to a NASA facility in Palestine, Texas, but he’s not talking and police in Texas won’t press charges against him. But the good news is that the missing telescope has been found – sitting at a truck wash — after a frantic cross-country search.

The telescope is a high-tech irreplaceable piece of equipment that is 22 ft high 15 ft wide (6.5 X 4.5 meters). It is designed to detect radiation from the Big Bang and it took fifteen people 8 years to build. The telescope will be shipped to Antarctica, where it will be attached to a giant balloon in December and sent 110,000 feet (33,500 meters) into the atmosphere.

Last Friday, a Minnesota trucking company sent off one of their trucks with telescope inside. But by Monday there was no word from the trucker and the scientists started to panic when the truck didn’t show up at the NASA facility. Calls to the trucker went unanswered. The owner of the trucking company sent his son to Dallas to search for the truck and the driver. Their only clue was a credit card charge at a Dallas truck stop.

The son found the driver, asleep in the cab of the truck, but the trailer, with the precious cargo inside, was nowhere to be seen.

The driver said he left the trailer at a hotel parking lot, but when the searchers arrived, it wasn’t there. More searching, and the trucker clammed up and wouldn’t provide any more clues or reasons for why he didn’t deliver his cargo.

Finally another employee of the trucking company found the trailer sitting at a truck wash in Dallas.

“If they would not have found that particular trailer at that time, maybe half a day or a day later someone would have stolen it and taken it for metal or just for scrap,” said physics professor Shaul Hanany, the project’s lead researcher.

NASA unpacked the crate Thursday morning and said the telescope was unharmed and is in great shape.

The owner of the trucking company said sometimes they do have trouble with drivers, but he has never had anything like this happen, especially with such a unique instrument. He wondered, why couldn’t the driver be hauling a load of potato chips instead of something that will solve the mysteries of the Universe?

The driver has been fired, and the telescope will head to Antarctica as planned.

Source: Minnesota Public Radio


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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