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The $150 [Near] Space Camera

The $150 [Near] Space Camera

The $150 [Near] Space Camera

Wow... This was truly an exciting cutting edge beer-budget engineering project that had to consider every aspect of high altitude flight, including launch and recovery! Hmmm.: I wonder if an extra [emergency plug-in?] battery pack for the camera and cell-phone could have allowed the combo to transmit each photo when taken [USB'ed together]... or on the descent???

I can't wait to see the photos strung-together in a video sequence!!!

The $150 Space Camera: MIT Students Beat NASA On Beer-Money Budget

Bespoke is old hat. Off-the-shelf is in. Even Google runs the world's biggest and scariest server farms on computers home-made from commodity parts. DIY is cheaper and often better, as Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh found out when they decided to send a camera into [near] space.

The two students (from MIT, of course) put together a low-budget rig to fly a camera high enough to photograph the curvature of the Earth. Instead of rockets, boosters and expensive control systems, they filled a weather balloon with helium and hung a styrofoam beer cooler underneath to carry a cheap Canon A470 compact camera. Instant hand warmers kept things from freezing up and made sure the batteries stayed warm enough to work.

Of course, all this would be pointless if the guys couldn't find the rig when it landed, so they dropped a prepaid GPS-equipped cellphone inside the box for tracking. Total cost, including duct tape? $148.


Two weeks ago, on Sept. 2, at the leisurely post-breakfast hour of 11:45 a.m., the balloon was launched from Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Lee and Yeh took a road trip in order to stop prevailing winds from taking the balloon out onto the Atlantic, and checked in on the University of Wisconsin's balloon trajectory website to estimate the landing site.

Because of spotty cellphone coverage in central Massachusetts, it was important to keep the rig in the center of the state so it could be found upon landing. Light winds meant the guys got lucky and, although the cellphone's external antenna was buried upon landing, the fix they got as the balloon was coming down was close enough.

The Photographs

The balloon and camera made it up high enough to see the black sky curling around our blue planet. The Canon was hacked with the CHDK (Canon Hacker's Development Kit) open-source firmware, which adds many features to Canon's cameras. The intervalometer (interval timer) was set to shoot a picture every five seconds, and the 8-GB memory card was enough to hold pictures for the five-hour duration of the flight.

The picture you see above was shot from around 93,000 feet, just shy of 18 miles high. To give you an idea of how high that is, when the balloon burst, the beer-cooler took 40 minutes to come back to Earth.

What is most astonishing about this launch, named Project Icarus, is that anyone could do it. The budget is so small as to be almost nonexistent (the guys slept in their car the night before the launch to save money), so that even if everything went wrong, a second, third or fourth attempt would be easy. All it took was a grand idea and an afternoon poking around the hardware store.

The project website has few details on how the balloon was put together — but the students say they will be posting the step-by-step instructions soon. UPDATE: The instructions will be available for free, not $150, as earlier reported.

Project Icarus page [1337 Arts] http://space.1337arts.com/

Photo credit: 1337 Arts/Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh

Regards, Wil Taylor

RE: The $150 [Near] Space Camera

Great post Wil,  I've always been a fan of repurposing equipment to do something new and cool.

I've always thought that using a hydrogen filled high altitude balloon as the first stage of a light orbital rocket would be a good idea.  I know that it won't add any significant velocity to the rocket, and to get something orbital it needs velocity.  But by getting it above most of the atmosphere you don't waste any thrust overcoming drag.  The hydrogen would get it higher then the same balloon filled with helium and if you could figure out a way of combusting they hydrogen it might even work as a fuel tank.  I don't know how much the very large high altitude balloons that nasa uses can lift, but I know they have reached 100k using helium which is above 99.9% of the atmosphere.  I guess I'd have to think about stability since fins would be largely ineffective, but without aerodynamic loads the structure could be lighter.


Kirby Wilkerson

Remember, first define the problem, then solve it.

RE: The $150 [Near] Space Camera

Clearly, this comes from the heart of American bias against intellectualism.  Why the comparison against NASA; was there a competition going on?  

Considering that both the GPS and the camera that they used owe much to NASA's and Air Force's development of technology and exploration tools, it's no wonder that they can enjoy the benefits of money that NASA previously invested.  

So, yes, it's $150, now, but that's on top of billions of sunk costs by NASA.


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RE: The $150 [Near] Space Camera

And here is the video-log of another amateur flight in Canada ~ late august 2009(???)... and remarkably similar to the flight by the the MIT college students...


Regards, Wil Taylor

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