Astronomy in Antarctica

Observational astronomy has always been a romantic, rigorous profession. Caroline Herschel recorded her brother's observations by candlelight, shivering through the damp British winter. Edwin Hubble and Walter Baade spent long, cold, hours peering through a guidescope, keeping the giant telescope on Mount Wilson on track as it took the pictures that let them measure the size of the universe. Today's giant optical telescopes are controlled robotically, but there's still plenty of hazard and hardship at the observational frontier.

To understand star formation in the early universe, we must observe in the critical submillimeter wavelength band. Unfortunately, that's both absorbed and emitted (drowned out) by Earth's air. So the only good place on Earth to observe in this band is from a balloon high in the frigid atmosphere above Antarctica.

The cover story of our June 2011 issue is about BLAST, the Balloon-borne Large Aperture Telescope. As luck would have it, one of the authors, astrophysicist Mark Devlin, has a brother (Paul Devlin) who's a skillful professional filmmaker. Paul captured the whole mission on film — its scientific significance, the people involved, and the challenging Antarctic launch. Click below to see some clips from the film.

If you like what you see, you can purchase the entire BLAST movie from our online store.

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