the icy crevasses of Antarctica, Mark Devlin lost a little white box
that might have contained the best work of his career.
The box, no bigger than a PC, had been recording images from a
special telescope aboard a helium-filled balloon that Devlin and
colleagues had built in West Philadelphia and that had flown high above
the icy continent.
Devlin thought he might have captured evidence for a sort of hidden
universe - a vast collection of stars and galaxies that no one had seen
before. Such a finding could challenge astronomers' view of the
universe and how it came to be.
But something went terribly wrong. After the landing, an errant
parachute dragged the telescope more than 100 miles, scattering its
invaluable pieces over some of the planet's most treacherous terrain.
Any potential discoveries were probably lost.
Devlin and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania felt their careers blowing away with the Antarctic wind.
Finding it seemed unlikely, but Devlin had no intention of giving up.
It all started with a mysterious glow that several NASA satellites detected in the 1990s.
The glow was not visible to the eye, but came in a hard-to-observe
wavelength known as sub-millimeter, somewhere between radio and
Human eyes are tuned to a narrow band of light wavelengths - the
visible range - but the universe shines across a much wider spectrum.
Radio waves, microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet, and gamma rays each
reveal a different set of phenomena - a different face of the cosmos.
Sub-millimeter waves could potentially reveal objects otherwise
obscured by dust, which absorbs visible light. Devlin and other
scientists wondered if that mystery glow was coming from galaxies
buried in cosmic dust.
To find out, they'd need a telescope designed to take images in this sub-millimeter wavelength.
Since the earth's atmosphere blocks sub-millimeter waves, the only
way to detect them would be to get above it. NASA had plans to do this
with a satellite, but Devlin had a different idea: He thought he'd do
it faster and cheaper with a helium balloon.
Scientific balloons can be as big as football fields and can fly up
to 125,000 feet high. That would be good enough to loft a telescope
above 99.7 percent of the atmosphere.
The white box was lost from Devlin's second attempt to capture the
sub-millimeter universe. In 2000, he began building an earlier version
of the project - dubbed BLAST, for Balloon-borne Large-Aperture
Much of it was assembled in the Left Bank building in West
Philadelphia. It had a 6-foot-diameter carbon fiber mirror - almost as
wide as that flown on the Hubble Space Telescope. The apparatus stood
25 feet high and weighed two tons.
It was launched from a balloon facility in Sweden. But the mirror
absorbed water, which froze, distorting the view. Then it landed hard
in a remote part of Canada. "It was sad," Devlin said. "The whole thing
was in tiny pieces on the ground."
As team leader, Devlin said, he couldn't show signs of despair. He
had too many colleagues and students who had put too many hours into
"If you're a principal investigator and something gets screwed up,
you have to forge a path," he said. So they recovered whatever pieces
they could and started rebuilding.
When it was finished in 2006, they launched it from a balloon facility in Antarctica.
The frozen continent was perfect, he said, because in the southern
summer, there's 24-hour daylight and a reasonably constant temperature
to keep the balloon at a steady altitude. And the winds go predictably
around the pole. Devlin's brother Paul came with him to make a
The launch was just before Christmas. The team happily watched the
balloon disappear over the horizon. Everything seemed to be working. It
stayed aloft for 12 days, making a loop around the South Pole.
Devlin flew home. Then, around New Year's Day, he got a call.
It was the head of the balloon facility, saying he was sorry but, on
landing, the parachute had failed to drop off and was dragging the
telescope along the ground.
Later, Devlin learned that the wind had dragged it 120 miles, leaving pieces of the telescope over the whole treacherous path.
The empty gondola finally came to rest, wedged in a crevasse.
Somewhere in that path was the data they had collected. The data
were stored in something like a black box, he said, except that it was
painted white - a mistake in retrospect.
NASA and the National Science Foundation pitched in with a search
plane. After what Devlin recalls as three or maybe four tense days, the
pilot finally spotted something near the end of the trail, not far from
the crevasse that finally caught the frame.
Devlin calls it pure luck. A more religious colleague saw it as divine intervention.
The hardware was demolished but the hard drives looked OK. He sent
them to a recovery company. And back came a new perspective on the
Revealed for the first time was a previously dust-shrouded population of exotic galaxies radiating from the early universe.
Called starburst galaxies, they crackle with the production of
hundreds of new stars a year - prolific compared to the three stars our
galaxy makes in the same time.
If you lived in a starburst galaxy, said Devlin, you'd see many more
of the bright stars that make up Orion and other prominent
These galaxies really shouldn't be there according to the favored
theory of cosmology, said Ian Smail, an astronomer from Durham
University in the north of England.
Because they are looking so far out in space, they are also seeing
back in time, more than halfway back to the big bang. And at that
stage, there should be galaxy fragments, not big, bright galaxies.
The findings were officially released today in the journal Nature.
"This is one of those big-impact things," said Smail. "They're my
competition, and this field is very cutthroat, but at some point you
have to say they've done something pretty unique."
"For the theorists, it's a big headache," Smail added. "But that's
good. It's one of those creative conflicts that really drives the
Devlin said that if the pilot had failed to find the box, he would
have asked the National Science Foundation to send out snowmobiles. He
would have gone out himself but said the authorities wouldn't allow it
since they don't like people to die driving into crevasses.
The next step will be to verify his data.
That could happen soon, as NASA expects to launch its long-planned
sub-millimeter satellite, called Hershel, in May. Devlin said his
smaller project had to come first to have an impact.
If they hadn't turned up that white box, there would have been no third chance.
If You Go
by Paul Devlin.
When: Wednesday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
and from 6 to 8 p.m.
Where: Cohen Auditorium, Claudia Cohen Hall, 249 S. 36th St., on the University of Pennsylvania campus.
Cost: Admission is free.
Web: View the trailer at www.blastthemovie.com
Contact staff writer Faye Flam at 215-854-4977 or firstname.lastname@example.org.