A truck loaded with a stratospheric balloon telescope designed to help unlock the mysteries of the universe was found Wednesday night near Dallas -- three days after it had disappeared.
The high-tech equipment -- part of a NASA-funded experiment to study the afterglow of the Big Bang -- was being transported from the University of Minnesota to Palestine, Texas, where NASA operates its balloon operations center known as the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility.
"This is of no value to anyone but us," said CSBF site manager Danny Ball. "It's a huge mystery."
The missing truck was found apparently undamaged at a car wash near Hutchins, said Asad Aboobaker, a research associate at the University of Minnesota's School of Physics and Astronomy. The location was near a truck stop where it was last seen.
"The seal on the trailer is unbroken," Aboobaker said. "Now we can get on to doing some science."
The university contracted with a Minnesota trucking company to pick up the telescope on Friday, Aboobaker said.
The truck did not arrive in Palestine as planned on Monday. The site is about 80 miles southeast of Dallas.
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The truck's last known location was a truck stop near Hutchins, according to the GPS on the driver's cellphone. The phone was later found abandoned at a fast-food restaurant nearby.
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.
But in Dallas, where the theft may have occurred, auto theft detectives opened an investigation, said Sgt. Jerry Mitchell.
"The trailer contains many components of our experiment that would be very difficult to replace in timescales shorter than about a year," Aboobaker said. "That represents a few million dollars worth of hardware and personnel effort from research institutions across the United States, Canada, and internationally."
On Wednesday, the driver was located near Hutchins but the trailer was still missing, Ball said. It was not immediately clear where the driver had been or what had happened to the trailer.
A woman who answered the phone at the trucking company, Copeland Trucking in Minneapolis, said, "It's a crazy deal." She declined further comment but said the company's owner might provide further information later.
Ball said it's ironic that a piece of equipment designed to study the furthest reaches of the universe is the subject of a mystery so close to home.
"I'm feeling like I'm in 'The Twilight Zone,'" he joked.
The telescope, while funded by NASA, is owned by the University of Minnesota. NASA plans to lift the telescope into space from Antarctica in October.