Image: NASA

Just hours after a long-awaited takeoff from its launch site in Alice Springs, Australia, Sunday morning, NASA's pumpkin-shaped Ultra Long-Duration Balloon (ULDB) was back on terra firma. The giant balloon (right) was supposed to circumnavigate the globe over a two-week period, collecting data on cosmic radiation while traveling roughly along the Tropic of Capricorn some 22 miles above the earth's surface. But at around 85,000 feet it sprang a leak, forcing scientists to guide the balloon and its 4,500-pound payload back down to the ground.

The cause of the leak remains under investigation, but the payload landed upright and seems to be in good condition, according to NASA officials. "A team is reviewing data from the flight and examining the recovered balloon. A recommendation is expected by the end of this week concerning the possible flight of a backup balloon that NASA has available in Alice Springs," says Steve Smith, chief of NASA's Balloon Program Office. "We are confident in the ULDB concept and in providing scientists with a new means of studying the earth and space."