- Posted September 13, 2009 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Light Years: Your view of space and stars
MIT Students Take Space Photos on $150 Budget.
Two MIT students have successfully photographed the earth from space on a strikingly low budget of $148. Perhaps more significantly, they managed to accomplish this feat using components available off-the-shelf to the average layperson, opening the doors for a new generation of amateur space enthusiasts. The pair plan to launch again soon and hope that their achievements will inspire teachers and students to pursue similar endeavors.
Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh have always dreamed of seeing the earth from space, but until recently, they believed that they had neither the budget nor the technical expertise to get a camera into the stratosphere.
Early September, in a moment of creative inspiration, the pair devised an innovative low-cost, low-effort method for space photography. The device they created cost less than $150, and they were able to build it without any significant modifications to out-of-the-box electronics.
The secret behind their success was figuring out which consumer-ready components to pick-and-match to solve the problems space photographers face. Their device had to: rise to an altitude high enough to capture space photographs, withstand extreme temperatures of the stratosphere, and be trackable/recoverable.
The students knew that helium-filled weather balloons were capable of reaching altitudes of 20+ miles, high enough to photograph the curvature of the earth. Weather balloons were also relatively inexpensive; a 300g latex balloon can be ordered online for $20 and can be filled with helium at a party store for $30. If they could keep their camera device light, then a 300g balloon would have enough lift to carry their device into the upper stratosphere.
Temperatures in the stratosphere can get as low as -55°C, and at that temperature, batteries stop working and electronics fail. To get around this problem without resorting to the use of expensive temperature-resistant hardware or heating devices, the pair used a styrofoam cooler and handwarmers pressed tightly against operating electronics to help keep their equipment functioning throughout the camera’s flight.
Locating and retrieving a camera after a near-space launch is a difficult task. Typically, weather balloons are tracked using GPS radio modems which are heavy, cost in the thousands of dollars, and often require complex hardware configurations. In lieu of purchasing a radio modem for their space-bound camera, Lee and Yeh opted to use a $50 GPS-equipped cell phone. The cell phone was secured to the camera and constantly reported its GPS location via text message.
Lee and Yeh launched their balloon from the town of Sturbridge, MA on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009. Their balloon-camera-cell phone device reached an altitude of 18 miles before returning to earth. At that height, both the curvature of the planet as well as the blackness of space were photographed by the camera. Pictures taken show cloud formations speckling the blue earth below, and the edges of our atmosphere glow a brighter blue, reflecting the sun’s radiance.
“We looked at these photographs and thought wow, these are beautiful—this is artwork,” remarks Lee. “This inspired us to sit down and really think deep about the relationships between science and art.”
After their launch, the duo have founded a website, http://1337arts.com dedicated to promoting the beauty of scientific art and bridging the science and art communities. This could be something big,” remarks Lee. “Imagine if the art kids and the science kids in high school got together to do something like [a space launch].”
Yeh stressed the groundbreaking nature of their work. “The fact that we were able to accomplish space photography on such a low budget and with minimal electronic modifications proves that it’s really possible for anyone—anyone at all—to do. Imagine how many students might be inspired if their high school science teacher took the time to give his students an out-of-this-world experience.”
At a time when budget cuts are forcing NASA to get cut back on spending, and at a time when high school science teachers struggling to capture the interests of students, low-budget space launches could be just what we all need.