BLAST conducts unique galactic surveys

BLAST being launched in Kiruna, Sweden, in June 2005. (Credit: D. Wiebe, Physics Department, University of Toronto)

In June 2005, a team of researchers from Canada, the USA, the UK and Mexico has launched BLAST, a balloon-borne telescope. During the flight that lasted 5 days, the balloon covered the distance between Kiruna, Sweden, and Inuvik, in the Canadian North.

BLAST being carried to its launch pad

BLAST being carried to its launch pad (Credit: University of British Columbia)

BLAST on the launch pad

BLAST on the launch pad (Credit: University of Toronto)

During its flight, the BLAST telescope (for Balloon-borne Large Aperture Sub-millimetre Telescope) probed the heavens to identify starburst galaxies—a special kind of galaxy—enabling researchers to study the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and star clusters to find answers to cosmological questions.

Core of a galaxy as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

Core of a galaxy as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope (Credit: ESA and NASA)

What is cosmology?

Cosmology is the science that studies the physical laws of the universe. Cosmologists try to answer many questions on the formation of the universe, the causes of space phenomena or, again, the source of such energies as the dark matter. What particles made it possible for all structures to form? When did the first matter appear, putting an end to the Dark Age of the cosmos?

BLAST's mirror is two metres wide

BLAST's mirror is two metres wide (Credit: University of British Columbia)

Technology testbed

A second research flight is planned for 2007. In addition to its scientific mission, BLAST is to serve as a testbed for the technology developed for Herschel, a space telescope that is set to launch in 2007 with two Canadian instruments on board.

The BLAST telescope mirror is two metres in diameter. No ground-based telescope has the sensitivity or resolution of this telescope. Its precision, and the fact that it is suspended from a balloon floating on the densest layer of the atmosphere, gives it a clear view of the cosmos, free of the distorting effects of atmospheric gases.

Assembling BLAST

Assembling BLAST (Credit: University of British Columbia)

Drawing of the gondola that carries the telescope

Drawing of the gondola that carries the telescope (Credit: University of Toronto)

A team that knows the ins and outs

Canada designed and built the gondola, the pointing control system, and special-order electronic equipment. The equipment was tested for the first time in September 2003 during a flight of some 30 hours.

All of these tasks are being performed under the supervision of principal investigator Barth Netterfield on behalf of the University of Toronto, where Dr. Bart Netterfield teaches physics and astronomy and participates in a number of other space-related projects.

His fellow researcher Mark Halpern is an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia Department of Physics. Dr. Halpern has participated in a number of different experiments carried out aboard a sounding rocket.

Dr. Netterfield's team is made up of a number of high-powered research scientists including Douglas Scott of the University of British Columbia and Peter Martin of the University of Toronto.

Nor do contributions to BLAST come only from the academic world. Among the partners in this project, which is partially financed by the Canadian Space Agency, are the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, AMEC Dynamic Structures Ltd., and NASA.