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

  1. #1

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


    The $150 Space Camera.

    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 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 selling step-by-step instructions for $150 soon. That means you will soon be able to launch your own balloon for just $300 — $150 for the instructions and $150 for the parts.

    Project Icarus page [1337 Arts]
    Last edited by Cookie; 12-12-2009 at 06:57 PM.

  2. #2
    Forum Admin, Expert Plumber Terry's Avatar
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    Aug 2004
    Bothell, Washington
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    I found this story in my local paper today.
    One of the students went to a local high school here, Newport High in Bellevue

    The story

    And their web site

  3. #3
    Homeowner Thatguy's Avatar
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    Aug 2008


    Holding a straightedge on the photo I do not see curvature, so either you have to go higher or the earth really is flat.

  4. #4
    Plumber Cass's Avatar
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    Nov 2005


    I'm glad the beer cooler didn't land on my head...

    Thats the thing...they can't be sure it won't kill any one when it lands...

    or hit anything on its way down...maybe the styrofoam is lite enough as to not harm any one...

  5. #5
    Senior Robin Hood Guy Ian Gills's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2007


    This reminds me of being a kid and flying a kite way too high with the addition of lots of fishing line. I still wonder sometimes how high I could make a kite fly on a good windy day if I had enough string.

    I am tempted to launch a piece of plumbing equipment, such as a Korky Quietfill valve, into the upper atmosphere, using a balloon.

    The pic looks lower than 90,000 feet though. Perhaps 30,000 compared to some of the jetliners I have been in.
    Last edited by Ian Gills; 09-16-2009 at 05:29 PM.

  6. #6
    Extreme DIY Homeowner Scuba_Dave's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    South of Boston, MA


    I dunno, they say dropping a penny off the Empire State building could kill someone
    DIY Handyman (not 4 hire)
    I have enough to do to my own house


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