In 2010, on its fourth mission, BLAST was already equipped with polarimeters. However, accdording to Devlin, "that flight did not do so well because of a melted filter. We have some data, but we know we can do better."
Luckily, repeating a balloon-borne experiment is much easier and much cheaper than re-launching a scientific satellite. After each flight, most of the payload is recovered and can be used again. In particular, the BLAST camera with its sensitive and expensive detectors has been recovered every single time.
BLAST's fifth flight will probably last between 12 and 14 days. While Devlin, Netterfield and their colleagues are celebrating Christmans and New Year's Eve, the 4,000-pound (1800 kilograms) stratospheric telescope will observe selected star-forming regions in the constellations Vela and Lupus.
And if senior graduate student Tristan Matthews of Northwestern University Illinois has his way, this may not be BLAST's final mission after all. Depending on the results and the recovery success of the current flight, Matthews hopes to fly BLAST in its present configuration for a sixth time, in the Arctic. "That would give us access to a well-studied and nearby star-forming region in Taurus," he said.
Meanwhile, Devlin has received a $5 million grant from NASA over a period of five years to develop a larger version of BLAST, with a 2.5-meter mirror, as compared to the current 1.8-meter aperture. That would vastly increase the number of stellar nurseries that could be studied. "We could fly SuperBLAST in 2016 or so," he said.
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