Project Icarus journeys to the edge of space

September 21, 2009

by Mark Ollig

What can two college students do with $150?

Besides the obvious answers, how about, instead, using the money to buy the components needed to take your very own photographs of earth from the edge of space?

I recall, as a young boy, thinking of ways to attach and operate a camera on a balloon which would rise into the sky and take pictures of the area I lived around. The adventure of doing this was something I never carried out.

During the first week of September, two creative MIT students did just this with the launch and recovery of Project Icarus.

Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh are students attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sept. 2, the two launched their balloon containing a camera from Sturbridge Massachusetts where it rose to a height of 93,000 feet or 17.61 miles, which technically puts it into the stratosphere.

“We are a group of MIT students seeking to share the artistic aspects of science with others. On Sept. 2, 2009, we launched a digital camera into near-space to take photographs of the earth from high up above,” a statement on their web site says.

The two students used a helium-filled latex balloon, a Canon A47 camera, four lithium AA batteries, and a Motorola i290 “Boost Mobile” prepaid cell phone with internet and Global Positioning System (GPS) capability (which acted as the balloon’s GPS receiver). The software program used by the two students with the GPS receiver was called “Accutracking,” which reported its GPS location.

They knew their balloon and equipment needed to rise to an altitude high enough to take the photographs from the edge of space and withstand the challenging temperatures of the stratosphere. They also needed to be able to track and recover the camera when it came back to earth.

To combat the extreme cold in the stratosphere, the two students cleverly used a Styrofoam cooler which contained hand warmers that were tightly fitted against the electronic components kept inside the cooler. This kept their equipment functioning throughout the camera’s flight.

I know my devoted readers are thinking, “Isn’t there any FAA regulations about civilians launching balloons into the sky?”

Yes, there are.

However, in this case, FAA regulations say it is legal as long as the payload is less than four pounds.

The total combined weight of the students’ balloon and all the components inside the payload capsule was 28 ounces, or roughly 1.75 pounds.

The students knew that if they could keep the weight of the camera and other components light enough, then the 300-grams-balloon would have enough lift to carry everything into the upper stratosphere.

After launch, the two students continued to track the capsule visually for about half an hour, until the glare of the sun prevented them from further viewing.

The students say the GPS information recorded in the flight logs only reported a maximum altitude of 19,853 feet which was due to software limitations. With some straightforward calculations, they estimated the balloon achieved an altitude of about 93,000 feet before returning to the earth. The balloon’s ascent took about four hours, and its descent back to earth (after the balloon popped) took 40 minutes.

To get the best photographs possible, the camera was set to take a picture every five seconds at 1/800 of a second shutter speed. Using an 8GB Secure Digital (SD) card, the camera took enough pictures to record the entire trip of the balloon from launch to retrieval, which lasted about five hours.

The pictures I saw taken from their flight are truly breathtaking. They are very impressive and as good as some I have seen on NASA’s web site.

Both the curvature of the earth as well as the blackness of space were clearly photographed by the camera. The pictures also show cloud formations scattered across a blue earth below. The outer edges of our atmosphere show a much brighter blue, as it is reflecting the sunshine. The camera was able to take some very crisp, detailed, and clear photographs.

“We looked at these photographs and thought, wow, these are beautiful — this is artwork,” said Lee. “This inspired us to sit down and really think deep about the relationships between science and art.”

The two started a web site for Project Icarus at http://space.1337arts.com.

I just might complete my boyhood dream and try to send a balloon with a camera tied to it into the upper stratosphere. However, I will need to rethink my original idea for connecting a string to operate the shutter on my vintage 1972 Kodak Instamatic X-15 camera. I will also need to figure out a way to change those Sylvania flash Magicubes at 93,000 feet.

Be sure to visit this week’s Web Site of the Week. The Bits_blogger has uploaded many of the stunning photographs taken, along with the YouTube video from Project Icarus. You will also find details of the components used, the launch, flight, and recovery.