Monday, January 03, 2011

iPhones in space! A father-son duo's video of Earth from above

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

Using little more than a take-out container, an iPhone and an HD video camera, Luke Geissbuhler and his seven-year-old son, Max, made the science fair project of a lifetime.

The Geissbuhlers tucked the electronics (along with some hand warmers to keep them from freezing) into a Styrofoam vessel and launched it into space using a weather balloon. The 102-minute journey was recorded by the video camera and tracked via a GPS signal emitted by the iPhone.

The Geissbuhlers spent months doing research and testing their craft before an ideal launch day in August presented itself. With the weather just right, the father-son duo, along with some friends, drove to Newburgh, N.Y., where they launched their balloon.

The balloon rose at a rate of 25 feet per second. As it ascended the decrease in atmospheric pressure around the balloon caused it to expand.

Weather balloons released by the National Weather Service start out at an inflated diameter of about six feet. They swell to a diameter of 20 to 25 feet before bursting at an altitude of around 115,000 feet where the air temperature is as cold as -130 degrees Fahrenheit and the atmospheric pressure is about one hundredth what it is at sea level.

As it rises, the hydrogen or helium gas inside the balloon presses against its flexible walls until it can inflate no more and ruptures.

The Geissbuhlers' balloon reached 100,000 feet before it burst. A homemade parachute slowed the craft's descent, but it still fell at 150 mph. Despite encountering wind speeds of over 100 mph during its flight, the take-out container landed only 30 miles from its starting point and was recovered by the Geissbuhlers.

Though the camera clearly recorded the curvature of the Earth and black space above, the vessel didn't technically reach space. Reaching an altitude of 19 miles, the iPhone and camera were still 31 miles short of receiving their astronaut wings which the U.S. hands out to those who have flown higher than 50 miles.

The Federation Aeronautique Internationale (The World Air Sports Federation), however, defines the threshold of space as an even higher altitude of 62 miles which they call the Karman Line. And NASA considers re-entry to occur at 76 miles, when the first effects of atmospheric drag are felt.

Even so, it's not your every day party balloon set free that makes this kind of odyssey happen. And that's what makes this so cool. It's just a father-son team doing science and getting some pretty awesome results.

Fair warning, though: If you're thinking about trying it for yourself, don't run out and launch the first weather balloon you can find unless you're prepared for a little visit from the Federal Aviation Administration. Instead, order a copy of the Geissbuhlers' how-to book, which they plan to publish soon, and do it the right way. No scrambling of fighter jets or jail time necessary.

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