18 July 2011

The $1200 Space Program

Space, the final frontier –and so on and so forth. We may well have become over accustomed to seeing pictures of our blue planet from space, taken from the International Space Station or one of the shuttles on its latest (or last) billion dollar mission.  The picture above, however, was taken from a helium filled balloon launched by six friends from a small sleepy town in the English county of Herefordshire.

The balloon was launched on 10 July and was the culmination of a 3 month project by a group of six friends.  Take-off was at dawn in order to capture the sunrise.  The meteorological weather balloon rose twenty two miles and was tracked using (optimistically, one might have thought, considering their occasional reception issues) an iPhone. The entire cost of the project? In total it cost £750, just over US$1200 – NASA take note!

The idea for the project came when Gareth Dorrian, a solar physicist, showed his friend Chris Cardwell a video he had seen at a conference.   The video showed PhD students setting up a weather balloon and using it to take video.  The next day Cardwell phoned Dorrian and arranged a chat over a pint about an idea Cardwell could not get out of his head.

A number of drinks later the idea had become challenge – that of sending up a balloon themselves. Cardwell, a professional photographer, had already decided that this balloon would not be using low resolution video, however. He wanted HD and he wanted it in space. Yet they needed help.  Full time jobs outside of Star Fleet did not make a British excursion in to space from the town of Ross-on-Wye a major likelihood.

Fortunately, help was at hand in the form of computer expert Mat Roberts and photographer Frank Morris (together with son Samuel) who helped get the project off the ground (as it were).  Cardwell’s wife, Chloe, volunteered to program the cameras and then it was a matter of building the balloon. Above is the team with the balloon.

Choosing a launch site and gaining permission to use British air space were two further hurdles which were overcome during the three months from inspiration to ignition. Not bad, considering only one of the team is old enough to remember the launch of the first space shuttle.

Chris Cardwell takes up the story. “When we launched the balloon on Sunday the tenth, we hoped that we had a rough idea of where the payload should come down, but the only way of really telling, was by the onboard GPS, by way of a cat tracker, and an iPhone, that we sent up with it. The trouble with this is they don't work above 10,000 meters, so we quickly lost where the balloon was, and had to just wait, to see if we would ever hear from it again.

Luckily five hours later, when we had almost given up hope, it messaged to say it was back in the troposphere, and on its way down. We jumped into the cars and chased down the balloon, as it continued to broadcast its position.  We eventually found it in the top of a tree overhanging a river”.

Once back on earth, the team headed for another pub – which is, inevitably, very British. However, this time rather that the rough concept that Cardwell and Dorrian had three months previously, they were instead gazing upon the incredible images of the earth from the edge of space, images that they had taken, some of  which are reproduced here with their kind permission.

Needless to say the adventure attracted the attention of the media, but Cardwell is unfazed by this attention. “We didn't do any of this for the press; we only did it for one reason. We wanted a high quality picture of the earth from space that we had taken. And now we have it”.