DIY pictures from the edge of space

March 26, 2010

This photo was not taken by NASA or the European Space Agency or the Air Force, or by any organization at all. It was taken by Robert Harrison, a 38-year-old IT director from Yorkshire, who put a garden variety point-n-shoot digital camera on a helium balloon. According to Sky News, his rig cost about 500 quid, or just under $750. Harrison programmed a little gizmo that makes the digital camera take photos or videos at set intervals. The big load of goodies is at his Flickr site. Be sure to check out the Icarus 1 videos, they are mesmerizing.

The balloon carries the camera up to 22 miles above the Earth, at which point the pod carrying the camera detaches from the balloon and parachutes back to the ground. Harrison uses a GPS locator to recover the camera.

Twenty-two miles is 116,000 feet, or 35 km, still well within the stratosphere. That’s much higher than commercial airliners fly (around 40,000 feet), and in fact only a handful of manned aircraft are capable of flying over 100,000 feet. At that altitude the sky is black and the curvature of the Earth is obvious, so it is informally known as the “edge of space”. Space itself is quite a bit farther up. In the US, the definition of an astronaut is someone who has been at least 50 miles up (264,000 feet, 80 km). By comparison, on its final flight SpaceShipOne reached an altitude of 69 miles (112 km), and low Earth orbit starts at about 100 miles up (160 km). I bring that up just to establish context, not to detract at all from Harrison’s achievement. Getting pictures back from altitudes higher than those reached by the SR-71 Blackbird (~85,000 feet) on a budget of less than a thousand bucks is flat-out amazing.

I wonder who will be the first to duplicate his feat?


  1. Go on — you know you want to.

  2. It’s been done before- check out the MIT Icarus project- so he was, in fact, duplicating someone else’s feat. Still, we’re hoping to be next….

  3. Is it possible to image some stars from those altitudes? I understand exposure times etc, but aren’t the stars supposed to be brighter at those altitudes? What about using an IR device like the Yukon Ranger, or the Binocular Photon Machine?
    I remember reading years ago about the prospects for balloon based astronomy, but I’ve yet to see an image of stars from any balloon. Is it even possible?

  4. I think the main challenge to imaging stars from a cheap setup like the one featured here is that there is no way to steady the camera. As I understand it, any mechanism that would steady the camera sufficiently to get exposures of stars would vastly increase the complexity and expense of the setup, and probably put it out of reach of hobbyists.

    There wouldn’t be much of a benefit in terms of exposure times. Loss of starlight to the atmosphere is pretty minor as long as you’re looking near the zenith–about a quarter of a magnitude, which would be imperceptible to most observers. Calculations here.

    Balloon based astronomy has been going on for ages, but mostly for X-rays, most of which are blocked by the atmosphere. See examples here. For visual astronomy, there’s no percentage in it; for the cost and complexity of developing a steady balloon-based rig you could build a ground-based instrument sufficiently larger to overwhelm any advantage of being at high altitude. Observatories are built on mountaintops for steadier air, not to overcome atmospheric extinction.

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