Balloon into Space

Yesterday, we attended the Maker’s Fair in Seattle.  It was a meeting of inventors, vendors, and wannabes (me) oohing and aahing over fun, geeky projects that people made in their garage.  I told Tenille that if I am really good in this life, I will die and wake up in a place like this.  Unfortunately, if she woke up at the Maker’s Fair, she likely had some more repenting to do…

There were many interesting projects at the Fair, but the one that most inspired me was not at the Fair at all.  There was also a Science Festival that was going on at the Seattle Center and we ran into a friend from our church that attended Bellevue High School.  She showed us her school project which was making “satellites”.  They created a small styrofoam box and stuffed it with various electronics to take pictures and measurements.  They tied these boxes to a giant weather balloon, and let them fly up into the upper atmosphere.

The idea was done originally by some MIT kids in 2009 and it got huge publicity on major media outlets.

But, what was inspiring was that a few kids from Bellevue High School could put it together and get similar stunning photos of the curvature of the Earth.  Caleb and I started asking a bunch of questions and came to the conclusion – “Hey!  We can do this, too!”

So, we’ve started down the path of putting together our own “Balloon into Space” mission.  Here’s what we got so far:

1.  I just purchased an Android Droid Eris phone from for $38.  .28 lbs. The Droid A855 had better video camera specs but the weight was about 50% higher.  I’m pretty sure I can create an app that will text at some interval with a picture and GPS location.  Also, I want it to take video footage.

2.    Weather Balloon from ($20).  It can lift between 1-4 lbs.  It has a burst altitude of about 80,000 feet which is about 15.5 miles.  Space is generally considered 62 miles above the surface of the Earth sometimes referred to as the Karman line.  We’ll hopefully get about a 1/4 of the way there.

3. Sytrofoam Airplane from ($20).  2 lbs.  This is my initial idea as the landing device.  It’d be preferable if I didn’t have to pick up my Smartphone with a vacuum cleaner at the landing site.  Parachute is the other simple option.  I figure the styrofoam airplane will provide more video footage and cover more ground.  At the end of the day, I want to recover my smartphone in one piece and get the video footage.

Some other anticipated incidental costs:

1. Helium

2. Temporary Verizon service

Here are some problems that are yet unsolved and questions that are under intense discussion in the Hyun home:

1.  How do we connect the airplane to the balloon?  When the balloon pops, we need the balloon to unlatch from the airplane, or it may severely impair the ability of the airplane to glide.  The simple solution is to attach the airplane in some way that requires tension in a certain direction for it to stay on (like a washer and a bent hook).  The more complicated solutions have involved an android app that detects changes in acceleration hooked up to a solenoid latch.  Caleb brainstormed an app that hooks up to a motor with a grinder that will cut the rope…We’re still thinking on this one, but probably leaning towards simple.

2.  Where should we launch?  We need somewhere with a network of roads so we don’t have to hike for 50 miles, but at the same time not too dense so it doesn’t hurt anyone or anything on the way down.  Probably farm country somewhere.  Somewhere flat as the eye can see… with no wind…I’d hate to have to climb a tree….

3.  How high can we send and receive texts?  If it’s line of sight, can we send texts 15 miles from the surface?  What does the app need to do when it can’t get service?

4.  Can the smartphone take video while it is taking pictures and sending SMS messages?  If not, how often should we cut video to take a picture and send an SMS?  We’ll get SMS messages and pictures even if we don’t recover the smartphone.  Video footage would certainly be more cool, but would require smartphone recovery.  How frequently should we text back the GPS location with pictures?

5.  Will the plane be able to fly with a smartphone duct taped to it?  This may require some testing, but the tests themselves may destroy the plane and the smartphone.  We bought a styrofoam plane a few weeks ago for the kids to play with from Walmart.  It lasted about 3 flights… Perhaps we could create a light, protective cage around the Smartphone?

Lots of questions.  Lots of excitement.  Once we get the phone and the airplane, we’ll start conducting some tests.  If you have budding scientists, bring them by.  I’m sure we’ll need helpers… and kids (and adults) to man mission control…


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