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A Blast into the Universe’s Past

Astronomy prof Barth Netterfield stars in new documentary about a high-flying telescope

It’s not every day that a scientist becomes a movie star, but astronomy professor Barth Netterfield has embraced both roles – thanks to a feature-length documentary that premiered at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival this spring, and will air on Discovery Channel Canada in late autumn.

“BLAST: Science Hanging by a String,” directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Paul Devlin, is named after a cosmological experiment that has taken Netterfield and his students halfway around the world over the last few years. The Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimetre Telescope flies high into the stratosphere, hanging from a giant NASA helium balloon. With much of the earth’s atmosphere beneath it, the telescope can map distant stars and galaxies in unprecedented detail, helping astronomers understand how the first structures to appear in our universe formed and evolved. Many of BLAST’s components were built in Toronto by Netterfield and his students. “I think it’s such a fun story,” says Netterfield. “It’s good to be able to share it.”

The film’s director had unprecedented access to the researchers: his brother, Mark Devlin of the University of Pennsylvania, is the lead investigator on BLAST. Paul Devlin follows the scientists on their quest, as Netterfield and the team conduct trials in northern Sweden, the Canadian Arctic and finally Antarctica – often waiting weeks for a launch opportunity. (The project was a four-country collaboration between Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico. About a dozen scientists, including students, were involved in any one launch attempt.) Along the way, they cope with extreme weather, malfunctioning equipment and smashed mirrors, as well as the boredom and frustration that comes from being thousands of miles away from friends and family. The final drama unfolds when a parachute doesn’t detach when it’s supposed to, dragging the telescope – along with BLAST’s precious data-filled computer hard drives – some 220 kilometres across the ice.

“With science, most people only see the results,” says Netterfield. “Here they can see what it’s like to actually do it.”

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