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Margaret Harris: December 2008 Archives

The BLAST team. Credit: Mark Halpern

By Margaret Harris

Things are not going well for the astrophysics “balloonatics” at the bottom of the world. After weeks spent waiting for decent weather, their Balloon-Borne Large Aperture Submilimeter Telescope, or BLAST, has hit a stumbling block. Fairly literally, in fact: the fragile, sensitive instrument has just slammed into the truck being used to launch it. “Oh, you’re (expletive) kidding me,” someone cries in the background, as the stricken telescope sways gently beneath its balloon in the still Antarctic air.

“Step by tedious step, we stumble away from abject failure,” says Barth Netterfield, a Canadian astrophysicist and co-star of the feature-length documentary BLAST, which chronicles the 18 rocky months leading up to the equally rocky launch of the telescope. “And that’s on a good day.” It’s a statement that will bring grimaces of recognition to many an experimentalist’s face, and as a summary of the film, it’s as good as any. If you’re reading this as a PhD student, and your experiment is not going well, take heart: at least it isn’t scattered over a 120-mile stretch of frozen wilderness, with the bulk of it halfway down a crevasse.