An Air Force cruise missile crashed into a trailer of computer equipment for cosmic ray telescopes at the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Grounds, about 70 miles southwest of Salt Lake City on Wednesday (10 December) afternoon. Although no one was injured, scientists say the damage, estimated to run in the tens of thousands of dollars, should only temporarily knock the telescopes out of commission.
The unarmed missile was released during a routine test mission from a B-52 bomber and flew on course for 3.5 hours, according to the Air Force. Near the end of the test, a specialized airplane was supposed to electronically guide the missile to its final target, but the airplane never brought the missile under control. The Air Force is investigating the accident.
The missile narrowly missed a set of seven ultraviolet telescopes that watch the night sky for signs of extremely high energy cosmic rays (Science, 5 December, p. 1708). But it punched through a corner of a nearby trailer, damaging computer equipment used to control the telescopes. Based on reports from the Air Force, the damage seems to be "minimal" and no data were lost, says astrophysicist Pierre Sokolsky of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, spokesperson for the Japanese-American collaboration that runs the research project. "The psychological damage was heavier than the physical or economic damage," adds astrophysicist Shigeru Yoshida of the University of Tokyo, now stationed at the University of Utah. Sokolsky hopes the system can be fixed within a few weeks.
Although researchers often work at the trailer about 2 weeks per month, they are kept away during military activities in the area. Sokolsky says there is "always an element of risk" in experimental physics. However, he notes dryly, "we're not particularly habituated to looking out for cruise missiles."