Having a BLAST!

Geek Culture

Image: Mark HalpernImage: Mark Halpern

Image: Mark Halpern

I don’t want to give the impression that the Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope is anything but a serious, high-tech valuable research tool – but BLAST!, the movie telling the tale of this project portrays such an energetic, do-it-yourself fun-and-frazzled atmosphere that it’s hard not to think of the scientists and crew as a bunch of geeks who could be doing this in the garage next door.

“I only work on projects like this,” BLAST principal investigator and University of Pennsylvania astrophysicist Dr. Mark Devlin told GeekDad in an email. “If you are not going to have fun, why bother?”
BLAST! – a documentary by Mark’s brother Paul Devlin – tracks the BLAST project from its first long-duration flight in 2005, which took the balloon and telescope from Sweden to Canada, through its second flight over Antarctica in 2006. And while the technical side of the mission is addressed adequately without overloading the viewer with details – the real story is of the team’s challenges with launches and recovery and engineering the craft.

Since BLAST took off, balloon-borne space projects have drawn more attention as lower-cost alternatives to rocket launches, but they’re not without their own risks, as evidenced by this pretty frightening video of a launch gone awry in Australia.

“Many people are jumping on to the balloon band wagon…especially with NASA’s budgetary issues,” Mark Devlin wrote. “There are people who are seriously talking about doing extra-solar planet hunting from balloons.” (Note of caution: Watch out for the gasbag aliens.)

BLAST is actually undergoing upgrades for a third major flight over Antarctica later this year.

“Preparations are going well,” Mark Devlin wrote. “We were given the final go-ahead by NASA a few weeks ago, so we will definitely be heading down in October. We just completed the payload integration in Toronto. The camera is returning to Penn on Monday for some more tests. We will head down to the NASA balloon facility in Palestine, TX in June for about six weeks to do final
integration tests and our checkout with NASA. Then we pack and ship to Antarctica for hopefully a better flight.

“Basically, all the electronics have been rebuilt and upgraded,” he said. “They are now more capable and consume less power. This means we can have smaller solar arrays. Other than that, we have polarized the instrument and are now looking to determine how magnetic fields affect star formation in our galaxy.”

BLAST! The Movie is, for now, only available in an educational-performance-rights DVD – GeekDad was provided with a screener copy of the film only for review purposes – but it is aired on public television stations from time to time. There’s an 8 p.m. showing on PBS Hawaii tonight, May 1, and WHYY in Philadelphia has a 9 p.m. showing scheduled for May 11.

A home/consumer DVD should be available in the fall, according to the filmmakers.

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