U telescope's two-day detour ends at Texas truck wash

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 31, 2012 - 8:50 AM

A high-tech telescope dropped off the map somewhere between the University of Minnesota and its Texas destination for two days before mysteriously resurfacing at a Texas truck wash Wednesday night.

The missing research equipment, used in NASA-funded projects to measure the universe's most minute fluctuations, was supposed to arrive at a scientific balloon facility in rural Texas by 8 a.m. Monday. A team of researchers was there waiting.

No truck. Hours later, the team was still waiting, said Asad Aboobaker, a post-doctoral researcher at the U. "Nothing showed up."

After two frantic days of phone calls, Aboobaker got word Wednesday night that the trailer had been found, its seal unbroken and the precious cargo presumably undamaged.

"We will know this for 100 percent certainty tomorrow," U spokesman Matt Hodson said Wednesday night about the telescope's condition.

Minneapolis-based company Copeland Trucking had tracked the driver's cellphone to a truck stop just outside of Dallas before that signal stopped, Aboobaker said earlier Wednesday. A phone was later found at a fast-food restaurant nearby, but no driver.

Capt. Steve Perry, of the Hutchins, Texas, Police Department, said that the trucking company picked up the tractor Wednesday from the truck stop.

Copeland Trucking said in an email that the trucker has been fired.

Out for 'afterglow'

The telescope was headed to the Texas station to be tested and calibrated before being shipped to Antarctica, where it is to lifted later this year, by balloon, more than 100,000 feet in the air.

The equipment detects tiny traces of energy waves -- echoes of the universe's Big Bang. It's easier to pick up that "afterglow" above the atmosphere, Aboobaker said.

The University of Minnesota owns the equipment for the project, which involves 10 of its researchers and more than a dozen other partners in the United States and abroad.

The team was to start testing the telescope Monday in order to finish by the end of next week.

"We're on a pretty tight schedule," Aboobaker said. "Every day we lose is obviously a problem."

Not that exotic

To the average person, the equipment "isn't anything all that exotic," said Danny Ball, site manager at the NASA-run Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, in Palestine, Texas.

"It's of no use to anyone except as scrap. You'd have to be pretty desperate to use it for that."

But it's a key part of millions of dollars of research and would cost more than $500,000 to replace -- not including labor, Aboobaker said. "We've been working on this for the past six or seven years."

Aboobaker was handling phone calls from agencies investigating the telescope's whereabouts this week in between reading a science-fiction series by Lois McMaster Bujold.

It's been his job to shepherd the day-to-day operations of the research project. But this, he said, "is a little outside the scope of what I've been to school for."

Then, Wednesday night he got good news.

The trailer containing the telescope was at a truck wash not far from the truck stop, Aboobaker said, where representatives from Copeland found it around 8 p.m., he said.

Aboobaker said he thought the telescope could still get to Antarctica on time.

Staff writer Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report. Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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