Student-Built Space Camera Photographs Earth, Costs $150
A picture of Earth from 93,000 feet, with Long Island in the background, taken by a camera launched on a balloon by MIT students.
Two MIT students recently launched a digital camera into the stratosphere on a helium balloon, capturing amazing views of Earth from up high.
The feat is impressive not just for the images, but for its budget - the entire project cost the students only $150.
Oliver Yeh, an MIT senior studying computer science and electrical engineering, and Justin Lee, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, lofted the camera Sept. 2 from Sturbridge, Mass. By tracking its location through the GPS readout of a cheap cell phone they launched along with it, the students were able to retrieve the package after it landed in Worcester about 20 miles (32 km) away.
The resulting pictures are stunning, revealing the blue glow of Earth with the bright glare of the sun's reflection, contrasting against the blackness of space. Yeh's favorite shot is a frame showing the curve of the Earth, with the shapes of Long Island and Connecticut visible.
"Our pictures turned out great," Yeh told SPACE.com. "We saw some pictures from other launches by other people online, so we kind of knew what to expect. But these pictures are unique 'cause everyone launches form different locations."
The MIT students aren't the first to undertake a near-space photography mission, but they appear to have done it for much cheaper than any previous project, and without any of the professional aerospace equipment and instruments often used.
Yeh and Lee bought the camera online - a used Canon A470 for about $40, and programmed it to take a picture every five seconds. They loaded it into a cooler along with a Motorola i290 prepaid cell phone, which they programmed to constantly report its GPS location via text message.
Indeed, the parts and even the expertise needed are so commonplace, the students insist, that anyone can carry out a similar experiment - one need not be a rocket scientist, or even an MIT student.
"All the parts we bought were off the shelf," Yeh said. "The programs we installed were just standard - as easy as installing MS Word onto your computer."
On launching day, Yeh and Lee's friend Eric Newton, also an MIT mechanical engineering graduate student, helped out. The three packed the equipment up with some newspaper for insulation and a set of $5 instant hand warmers to keep the instrumentation and batteries from freezing in the frigid temperatures of the stratosphere.
The students loaded their cargo onto a weather balloon, and filled up the balloon with helium from a rented tank. Once they let go, it lofted into the air and climbed to about 93,000 feet (17.5 miles, or 28.3 km) before finally bursting from the lack of pressure at high altitude.
Claiming their treasure
Once the balloon popped, a parachute deployed and softened the fall back down to Earth. The ascent took about four hours, while the descent lasted only about 40 minutes.
Yeh said the highlight of the experience was when the students came upon the landing spot and first sighted their package.
"We saw there was an orange little dot off in the distance," Yeh recalled. "We were all very excited and we ran towards it. We saw it was intact and all the electronics were still functioning."
After that success, the MIT team is already dreaming bigger. Their next goal is to send a camera even higher, with the help of a rocket engine.
Though he seems cut out for this line of work, Yeh said he doesn't plan to pursue aerospace launches professionally.
"It will probably be just a hobby," he said. "But I'm not ruling anything out."
Since the flight, the students have been inundated with requests for information from other would-be balloon launchers. They have posted instructions and details of their project at their Web site, http://space.1337arts.com/.
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