Hobbyists Take Out-of-This-World Images of Earth

Last month, cinematographer Colin Rich sent two digital cameras he bought on eBay for $45 soaring into the atmosphere using a weather balloon launched from Oxnard, Calif. The 27-year-old programmed the cameras to take several images and a video every three minutes.

At 125,000 feet – or 24 miles, the balloon popped and a parachute brought the contraption back to Earth nearly 15 miles from where it launched.

The entire mission, which Rich dubbed Pacific Star II, cost under $300.

“I had a feeling that if everything went according to plan, the images would turn out really well,” Rich told TechNewsDaily. “But words can’t describe how amazed I was when I finally saw them. I couldn’t have been happier.”

Rich is one of a growing number of hobbyists getting amazing snapshots of Earth that was once only possible using costly high-tech satellites. [See also "DIY Snapshots of Earth:Pacific Star II Gallery"]

The trend got widespread attention in September 2009, when two MIT students launched a digital camera attached to a helium balloon 93,000 feet in the air to capture stunning pictures of the Earth. This was one of the first times such an experiment was done successfully on such a low budget ($150).

Edge of Space Sciences (EOSS), a Denver, Colo.-based non-profit organization that promotes science and education via high-altitude balloon missions, has been promoting the concept for years by teaching its members payload and ground station design and development, as well as how to handle in-flight communications, tracking and post-flight analysis.

“There are many groups in the United States that have been flying as far back as the late 80s,” according to Rick von Glahn, a founding member of EOSS. “This isn’t a new trend, but it’s a growing one.”

Zack Clobes, a hobbyist from Kansas with his own group called Project Traveler that has been flying for nearly a decade, said he’s astonished how much the concept has caught on over the last few years.

“We enthusiasts used to all know each other, but now it’s grown so much I’ve lost track of everyone,” Clobes said. “It’s great that so many people have taken an interest, but it also makes me nervous.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has lax rules designed for the National Weather Service, which shoots up about 180 balloons each day to monitor weather and atmospheric trends. Clobes fears this may change as more hobbyists launch their own satellites.

“They don’t really have rules right now that pertain to the hobbyists, so I fear that one of these days an accident might occur that could potentially have a negative impact on the hobby,” he said.

In Rich’s case, he set off to tackle the project after extensive preparation with a clear motive in mind: “I wanted to take pictures at a higher altitude than I’ve seen before,” he said.

While most balloons pop once they hit between 90,000 and 110,000 feet in the air due to changes in pressure, his soared a whopping 125,000 feet.

Spreading the word

The success of Rich’s mission has drawn attention from media outlets worldwide. Rich has also received many inquiries from potential hobbyists looking to learn more about how the launch was done.

After seeing how everything came together, Rich believes similar projects could easily be executed and built into educational curriculums: “If science classes had fun projects like this, more kids would want to be scientists,” he added.

Some schools, in fact, are already getting in on the action. For example, DePauw University in Greencastle, In., features a Balloon Assisted Stratospheric Experiments (BASE) program, which involves working with students from the university and nearby K-12 schools to design and build experiments with helium weather balloons.

"It's exciting for students to see science in action," said Howard Brooks, a professor in the physics and astronomy department DePauw University. "Some experiments fail, while others give really surprising results. Either way, it's a great way to show students that science can be fun."

Taylor University in Upland, In. and the University of Michigan also have similar programs.

Do it yourself

There are a few things DIYers should keep in mind before diving in. To start, missions should first be cleared by the FAA to keep the skies safe for pilots.

“Contact the FAA at least one week in advance of launch. If it’s your first flight, contact them a month before,” the EOSS advises on its site, eoss.org. “Then call your local Flight Service Station (FSS) 24 hours before launch and then again on the morning of your flight for current wind information. You can get a pretty good idea of where the wind is going, so your chase crew can position themselves accordingly.”

Rich built his device using two Canon Powershot digital cameras wrapped in styrofoam and duct tape to keep them warm from temperatures as low as -60 degrees Fahrenheit, a weather balloon, a parachute and a SPOT Personal GPS Satellite Tracker, a low-cost hi-tech GPS tracking unit that reads data from satellites circling the Earth.

He also used a Lassen IQ GPS – a device that provides accurate altitude readings based on triangulation, the process of determining a location based on its distance to other geographic points.

Rich recommends avoiding the use of a cell-based GPS unit, which is a cheap alternative taken from hacked cell phones.

The MIT students made a cell-based GPS system that worked due in part to their proximity to a nearby city and relayed location data through text messages, or SMS. This was done with pre-made software, hacking the phone's system -- which had a GPS device built into it -- and relaying data through SMS to either a computer or another cell phone. The problem, however, is that if the cell phone used to send GPS data is in an area with no coverage, the location information can’t be retrieved.

“You may not have reception in the area where the payload lands, especially if it’s in rough terrain,” Rich said, adding that he learned this the hard way after a first launch attempt. “There’s a strong possibility you could never see it again or that a farmer could accidentally run over it with a tractor. If you do use one, attach a note to the payload in case someone finds it and can mail it back to you.”

Another drawback to a cell-based GPS system is that the payload can’t be tracked by altitude, he added.

Hobbyists can build a transmitter instead of using a GPS system, but that would add considerable weight to the balloon since an onboard computer, transmitter and battery system would be needed. Rich monitored weather conditions and performed many calculations in the weeks leading up to the launch to ensure the cameras didn’t travel hundreds of miles away. [For more details on how everything came together, watch the video above].

Moving forward

The EOSS holds conferences and launch events to promote the hobby. The next one will be in Hutchinson, Kan. this weekend. There are 18 separate balloon groups -- with two to about twenty people in each -- expected to attend the conference on Friday, where various experts will give lectures on topics such as “Tracking Transmitters and Long Duration Flight.” About 14 of the groups will launch their balloon devices around 7:30 a.m. on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Rich is switching gears for his latest project. He plans to map and document the ocean floor by using a fleet of autonomous robots into the sea.

“We seem to know more about our own moon than we do about the deep,” he said. “The goal is to give a better understanding of exactly how fragile our planet is, especially in light of everything happening in the Gulf.”

Samantha Murphy
Samantha Murphy was a contributor to Live Science, covering the tech industry. She holds a degree in journalism and cinema studies from New York University.