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Education Hardware Hacking Space Science

Students Take Pictures From Space On $150 Budget 215

Posted by Soulskill
from the i-can-see-my-house-from-here dept.
An anonymous reader writes "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 door 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."
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Students Take Pictures From Space On $150 Budget

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  • by Bruce Perens (3872) * <bruce@perens.com> on Sunday September 13, 2009 @02:33PM (#29406493) Homepage Journal
    Groups like EOSS [eoss.org] have been doing this for at least 30 years, probably more. It's very common for a balloon launch to be a featured event in a ham radio conference. Their budgets per payload are similar, although they are able to do more technical work than featured in the MIT students work and often design their own radios, command devices, etc. None of this, though, is out of the range of a dedicated amateur. Note that there is a software-defined GPS [gpscreations.com] in development that might be the best way to get around the 20K foot altitude limit of consumer GPS devices. Its component cost is pretty low, despite the $495 cost charged for an assembled device at that site.
    • by cptdondo (59460) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @02:44PM (#29406563) Journal
      But this is in range of a middle school science teacher. That's the beauty of it! Once you break the $500 dollar limit, our underfunded schools in the US can't afford it. Heck, the elementary school my kids go to was happy to received a $200 check I won at a local race. For $150, these kinds of parts can be built using donated stuff. Many people have cell phones they no longer use. Many people have digital cameras they don't use. I can see doing this with some donated materials for $100. Plus the technology is there - no custom built ham radios, just "ordinary" technology we all use on a daily basis. It brings space down to ordinary kids. It would be great if these guys provided drawings and what control they usd for the camera and see if we can launch this at our school.
      • by Bruce Perens (3872) * <bruce@perens.com> on Sunday September 13, 2009 @02:53PM (#29406625) Homepage Journal
        This was in the range of a high-school teacher before. Indeed, there have been many high-school launches. Using donated parts doesn't really cut it. The camera has to be one of a few specific models that can run an Open Source download. The phone can't be just any one, unfortunately.

        By the way, use of the phone at altitude violates FCC regulations and does a denial-of-service attack on cell sites because sites all of the way to the horizon are receiving that frequency.

        • by Plunky (929104) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @03:08PM (#29406735)

          By the way, use of the phone at altitude violates FCC regulations and does a denial-of-service attack on cell sites because sites all of the way to the horizon are receiving that frequency.

          I guess, if they thought of it, they could set the phone to not transmit unless it was under a set height and falling. That could save battery power too..

      • by Rorschach1 (174480) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @03:03PM (#29406695) Homepage

        I think the hardware investment for my balloon project was about $300:

        http://n1vg.net/balloon [n1vg.net]

        I've got a new payload sitting here ready to go that's a lot cleaner and simpler, and has a 2-hour video capacity. Everything in the payload is off the shelf (granted, the radio/tracker is off my own shelf, it's one of my company's products) except for a DB9 connector and a few wires that took a few minutes to solder together. The housing is the top half of a magnum wine shipper, and all of the components (battery, radio, GPS) just wedge in between the foam pieces intended to hold the neck of the bottle. The camcorder is held in with rubber bands:

        http://n1vg.net/images/payload1.jpg [n1vg.net]
        http://n1vg.net/images/payload2.jpg [n1vg.net]
        http://n1vg.net/images/payload3.jpg [n1vg.net]

        The acrylic window that goes over the end took me about 3 minutes to fabricate on a CNC milling machine and could be easily and cheaply replicated.

        It'd be cheaper to build a transmit-only version of this system, but having a receiver lets you do useful stuff like control a cutdown device. This particular payload doesn't have one yet, but it can be as simple as a 1-watt resistor that you drive at 3 watts for several seconds to melt through a Nylon or Spectra cord. Maybe an extra buck worth of hardware.

        I might launch this thing as soon as next month if I can find the time. Possibly from the Mojave desert again, or maybe from the Cuyama Valley, a little closer to home. Ground crew and chase team volunteers are always welcome.

        At some point I'd like to have a ready-to-fly kit to sell at a reasonable price to schools, along with enough instructional materials to get them started. I just don't have the time for it right now.

    • by Kira-Baka (463765) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @02:51PM (#29406607) Homepage

      Some people provide better images [natrium42.com] too. The site I've linked even provides videos.

    • Hi Bruce! You going to DCC this month?

      The altitude limit isn't universal, and seems to be dependent on how the manufacturer reads the regs. Off the top of my head, I know the Garmin GPS 18 and 18x (with current firmware) and the Trimble Copernicus work at over 100,000'. As far as I know, nothing from SiRF does unless you have special firmware, and good luck getting those guys to even talk to you. Here's a table with some test results:

      http://showcase.netins.net/web/wallio/GPSrcvrsvs60kft.htm [netins.net]

      I use the GPS

      • I will be in Norway, so I'm missing DCC. Thanks for the list. David Rowe has made progress on the new Codec initiative I was promoting. See this [sourceforge.net].
    • but you really don't need GPS until the device comes down anyway.. that was more about finding your pictures and you still have 20,000 feet to chase the balloon in.

      • Um, I think some people want to track how high their balloon went so they can work on improving their fine control. Some people want to push for the highest altitude possible while others want to aim for a specific altitude (for instance, there's a project trying to aim for the right jet-stream altitude to allow their balloon to travel across the Atlantic ocean). Both of those situations end up being well over the altitude limit imposed by many of the GPS manufacturers.

        • GPS at full height and wind profile at the various altitudes you'll traverse gives you a good idea where it will come down.
    • by drolli (522659)

      I would not count the cellphone as a $50 device either. If you loose a subsidized phone (and i guess it is subsidized), you have still to pay the fee.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Bruce Perens (3872) *
        Well, this phone was from Boost Mobile, a pay-as-you-go service. I have Net10, and they have not objected to my taking phones out of service early. Indeed, the way their service works, if you don't like your phone at all, buying a new one at monthly renewal time works out best.

        Net10 disables the USB data functionality on all of their phones. So, using the more expensive Boost would be necessary.

  • Damage on landing? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jcr (53032) <jcr.mac@com> on Sunday September 13, 2009 @02:45PM (#29406569) Journal

    Their site mentioned that the antenna of the phone got embedded in the ground, and it's not clear from the pictures if they had a parachute on it at all, or if it was just too small.

    -jcr

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Tablizer (95088)

      What a euphemism: "It didn't crash-land, it just rapidly embedded into the ground." Better copyright that before the airlines use it.

    • It's great that they were able to use a cheap phone for this, but it's worth noting that many (probably most, in my experience) GPS receivers will NOT work properly above 60,000 feet. Some stop reporting their position until they come back down, some just report the wrong altitude, and some lock up completely. As long as you don't get one in that last category it's usually good enough for recovery, but you really need to do some research first if you want accurate tracking through the whole flight.

      And ham

      • by russotto (537200)

        It's great that they were able to use a cheap phone for this, but it's worth noting that many (probably most, in my experience) GPS receivers will NOT work properly above 60,000 feet.

        That's because of US regulations, not for any real technical reason. Receivers have been hacked to remove the limitation, something probably well within the capabilities of MIT students.

        • by Bigjeff5 (1143585) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @04:06PM (#29407183)

          And far beyond the scope of the project.

          The whole point was to do this without any sort of hacking, it's all off the shelf parts that a 3rd grade teacher could put together. It was the whole point of the exercise.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by GameMaster (148118)

          Actually, it's even worse that that. US regulations say that the receiver can work over 60,000 feet and can work at over a certain speed limit but that it isn't allowed to do both at the same time. The idea is to stop them from being used as guidance for low cost ballistic missiles. The problem is that many of the GPS manufacturers got lazy and just set their equipment to stop working if either condition occurred. In this case, it' really isn't the fault of the US regulations.

    • by AJWM (19027) *

      Their site mentioned that the antenna of the phone got embedded in the ground

      The "ground" at that point having roughly the consistency of sand. Dropping your phone from a pocket is enough to do that.

  • ACME (Score:2, Funny)

    by Tablizer (95088)

    My ACME Slingshot Cam may actually have a chance. I'm inspired again.

  • by popo (107611) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @02:52PM (#29406613) Homepage

    "The cell phone was secured to the camera and constantly reported its GPS location via text message."

    Sure the GPS part of the phone would work, but is anyone skeptical of the SMS bit? How could this possibly have been within tower range?

    • by Bruce Perens (3872) * <bruce@perens.com> on Sunday September 13, 2009 @02:56PM (#29406653) Homepage Journal
      It was in line-of-sight to the tower. Most of the signal loss is from obstacles on the ground. When you have line-of-sight, you can go very far.

      That's why use of cell phones at altitude is illegal. They illuminate thousands of cell cites all of the way to the horizon, and probably lock users out of a frequency on every one of those sites. It's sort of a denial-of-service attack.

      • by Tokerat (150341)

        That's why use of cell phones at altitude is illegal.

        Which makes this inexpensive project a bad idea for middle-school science teachers to start doing all over the place, or a cheap way to take down a cell network.

      • and probably lock users out of a frequency on every one of those sites.

        This is exactly the same as having one more regular phone within a cell's tower's range, right? I can see why the idea isn't scaleable, but given the number of students launching balloons it hardly seems like an actual problem.

        Why don't the towers just pass around lists of subscribers based on pair-wise comparisons? If Tower A, B, and C can see a phone but tower D can't, tower A, B, and C can figure out who's going to service it. Use

    • by JorDan Clock (664877) <jordanclock@gmail.com> on Sunday September 13, 2009 @02:57PM (#29406655)
      From their website:

      The GPS cell phone we used to track the location of our vehicle lost reception soon after launch (at an elevation of ~2500 feet).

      So I'm guessing it gave it's location up to 2500 feet, disappeared, then reappeared when it went below about 2500 feet.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by click2005 (921437)

      It would only need to be when its nearing the ground.

  • Safety? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Noodlenose (537591) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @02:53PM (#29406615) Homepage Journal
    While I love the low-cost aspect of this project, I am worried about the safety aspects: No air traffic control registering, and how did they prevent the bloody thing from hitting another human on the way down?

    NN

    • Re:Safety? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Bruce Perens (3872) * <bruce@perens.com> on Sunday September 13, 2009 @03:03PM (#29406703) Homepage Journal
      You can inform the FAA to issue a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) and you can get your flight permitted, all of the ham groups know how to do this. You can get a fine for not informing the FAA if your payload is over a certain weight.

      The terminal velocity of falling objects varies according to the weight of the object and the air resistance. A foam cooler and some ropes and torn balloon falling from altitude don't go very fast. Note that their descent took 40 minutes, and it was probably faster in thin air than thick.

      There was an interesting mythbusters on falling bullets. They couldn't get much force out of them.

      • Re:Safety? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Oswald (235719) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @03:20PM (#29406823)

        You can inform the FAA to issue a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) and you can get your flight permitted, all of the ham groups know how to do this. You can get a fine for not informing the FAA if your payload is over a certain weight.

        You can, and you should, provide this information to the FAA. Rest assured, however, that no meaningful action will be taken in response. It's all based on the big sky theory (which, it should be noted, has a pretty good record in this matter).

        • I've heard the airport broadcast, which passenger planes are required to copy, making note of a weather balloon.
  • This is a fairly standard high-altitude photography method, that is just being hyped up. You attached a camera to a helium balloon. Whoop-de-fucking-doo. Doesn't have anything to do with space.
    • by Sir_Lewk (967686)

      From TFA: "Photographs from near-space"

    • by vxvxvxvx (745287)
      The education system continues to redefine words in order that their accomplishments appear to be progress. In another 10 years you'll be able to jump high enough to take photos from space.
    • by kramulous (977841)

      I have to admit I was thinking the same. How does a balloon get you into space exactly? Them MIT people are really scraping the bottom of the barrel to keep enrollments up. This is amateur stuff. Fun, but not ground breaking.

    • by kraksmoka (561333)
      yeah, but so what? it makes the world a much smaller place (once again) overnight . . . space really is the next place scientifically that we should be looking to drive our economy (and species one day) on to higher frontiers . . .
  • Great idea! Now I'm thinking about more balloons and a DSLR with a circular polarizing filter...

  • >Yeh stressed the groundbreaking nature of their work

    Ah, best not tell him that the BBC science show "Bang Goes the Theory" did exactly that a few weeks back. Photo's on the way up looked great, and it must have been fun tracking and then retrieving it. I think it would make a great sunday activity.

  • by shaitand (626655)

    This has been done numerous times.

    But speaking of low cost space flight. I've seen lots of tricks used to protect the equipment from being burned up in the atmosphere... have there been any attempts to exploit a reaction with the earths atmosphere and harness the resulting energy?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ivan_w (1115485)

      Well, somehow, it is already being exploited..

      It is used to *reduce* the overall kinetic energy of a re-entering bolide so that the acceleration (and hereby force) to which the payload is submitted at impact doesn't damage said payload.

      And also.. the overall energy dissipated during atmospheric re-entry cannot exceed the amount of energy used to put the object wherever - and at whatever velocity - it was before re-entry. So if you are worried about energy expenditure.. just don't launch !

      --Ivan

    • Re:Yawn (Score:4, Informative)

      by Megane (129182) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @05:37PM (#29407797) Homepage
      Atmospheric burn-up is caused as you lose orbital velocity when you contact the atmosphere. As balloons and their payloads were never in orbit in the first place, there is no worry about anything burning up.
  • Are these guys being a liiiiiiiitle economical with the truth here.

    I realise that mobile phones are dropping in price all the time, but to buy a phone from a store that has GPS built in ...... for $50? Did they accidentally drop a "0" off the end of that price?

  • by nunoloureiro (1162373) on Sunday September 13, 2009 @03:30PM (#29406915)
    Some High School Students from Bilbao, Spain, did the same thing earlier this year for less than $100. Looking at the photos, it seems they got better shots.

    Story here:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/5005022/Teens-capture-images-of-space-with-56-camera-and-balloon.html [telegraph.co.uk]

    Photos here:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/meteotek08/sets/ [flickr.com]
  • Old News (Score:2, Informative)

    by ianturton (655126)
    Cambridge University and some UK high school (US Middle school) kids did this in 2008 - http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/news/dp/2008120401 [cam.ac.uk]
  • Anyone know where a step by step guide for this is and a list of parts. I'd like to do this with some of the kids in the small town I live in, to give them a sense of accomplishment and encourage them to become involved in science.

  • I love articles like this, and I've dreamed of doing a similiar project. While the costs of the equipment is doable and with a little know how you can get a rig together for less than $200 it's the flight that cost so much. Does the $150 cover the weather balloon and the tank(s) of helium it took to get the payload there? If so I'd love to know where they bought it. Last time I priced a modest balloon it was in the $500-$1k US range (just for the balloon).
    • I had no idea that stuff like this has become so cheap. Even for $300 or $400, when split between a few friends it is within reason for a badass project!

      • If you look at their actual web page and not the article it does say they paid $20 for the balloon (300g latex weather balloon) and around $30 for the helium. So yeah it looks like it is within the reach of mortals now :) Probably to late in the year to do it now, but I'm definitely going to do this next spring/summer.

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