Movie Review: BLAST The Movie

By on Jan 21, 2009 in Physics |

BLAST at the edge of our atmosphere

BLAST at the edge of our atmosphere

A first for this blog, a movie review, again on the theme of the International Year of Astronomy. BLAST The Movie tells the the tale of an intrepid team of scientists hoping to travel back in time … on a balloon.

Yes, it sounds like science fiction, but it isn’t. BLAST is an acronym for Balloon-borne Large Aperature Sub-millimetre Telescope. The BLAST project, lead by principal investigators, Mark Devlin and Barth Netterfield, was a project to both train graduate astrophysics students and to probe into views of the very early universe.

How do we see back in time? Because light travels at a set speed, it does not instantly go from point A to point B. So, light from the most distant sources is also the oldest light. That is how we see back in time.

Seeing back into time

Seeing back into time

This film was by Paul Devlin (any relation to Mark? Mark Devlin’s brother, thanks gmarsden) who has made two previous films (“Slam Nation” and “Power Trip“). While still paying all due attention to the scientific content, the documentary covers much more. In fact, it has many ingredients of a great drama. Much attention is given to Mark Devlin’s family and the effect that his prolonged absences have on his wife and two young sons. Also, some scenes are given over the two project leaders, Devlin and Netterfield, where they talk about science and their religious views. Devlin being an atheist and Netterfield being a Christian. All the while the spectre of failure hangs over the project as they hope they can collect the best astronomical data possible and then retrieve it from some of the harshest environments on Earth!

However, the greatest moments of drama belong to the telescope itself, by virtue of old saying what goes up, must come down. Both of the BLAST flights lasted for six days, during which time it collected vast amounts of data, far too much to be transmitted to satellites. Therefore the data had to be recorded to hard drives instead, which meant that BLAST had to parachute back to Earth and be recovered. I shall not give away whether BLAST was successfully recovered or not from either flight though! All I will say, as above, was that success was by no means guaranteed, given that the first flight had to be recovered from the far frozen north of Canada, and the second flight from the frozen wilderness of Antarctica!

BLAST's hard drives which need to be recovered after a flight

BLAST's hard drives which need to be recovered after a flight

In case you are not into astronomy and wondering why on Earth (pun intended) you would want to fly a telescope on a balloon, here’s why. Above our heads, we have about 20 miles of swirling gas, i.e. the atmosphere. All of of this blurs and distorts light coming from space and limits the effectiveness of ground based telescopes. (Addendum: Not only that, but our atmosphere absorbs almost all of the wavelength the BLAST scientists wanted to observe. thanks gmarsden). You’ve probably heard of the Hubble Space Telescope. This is a huge telescope orbitting our planet which is most definitely outside of our atmosphere. However, achieving such a feat is hugely expensive. Therefore, creating a more modest telescope, flown up by a balloon instead of theĀ  shuttle is cheaper and somewhat easier to do. As I aluded to above, the disadvantage seems to be the recovery procedure.

I only came across this film as part of a BBC4 astronomy night. It was on the BBC iPlayer (UK viewers only), which has now expired, so I know I’m a little late to be telling you how good this was. However, you will be able to buy a DVD from the BLAST website if you are interested by my write up. Also, you can simply donate to the project if you would like to support the BLAST Movie project (by means of funding or hosting screenings), which IMHO is a fantastic way to reach out to children and the general public about the valuable work being done in astrophysics and experimental cosmology. Support BLAST!

In the meantime, you can watch a trailer for BLAST The Movie.

Related Links:

  • Chris Lintott’s Universe: Having a BLAST!