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Sunday, February 28, 2010

More and more....

Well, ran some tests today. Overall, I'm pleased with how this is progressing, but admittedly there is a problem that keeps nagging at my project. No matter how much helium I put in the balloons, or how big a balloon I purchase, they never have enough to do what I need them to. Helium is supposed to lift 1 pound per 15 cubic feet. Well, I put 30 cubic feet into a 200 gram balloon and it can't even pick up the camera BY ITSELF. It did manage to pick up the styrofoam container and gps phone by themselves, but not the I could muster was to attach my cellphone camera and let it fly on a tether. Well, it went up maybe 100 feet or so, and of course it brings another problem to light. The camera spins around so fast you can rarely tell what is going on. I did anticipate this, however, and plan on attaching the platform in such a way as to keep spinning to a minimum.

I'm learning that to do this right and with a reasonable guarantee of success it is taking a lot of work and experimentation. I'll get this figured out, one step at a time.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Project Update

Well, the Canon A470 and 200 gram weather balloons have come in. I had a Canon A480 thinking it could use CHDK but apparently it was too new. So, I purchased a used Canon A470 because it definitely can use CHDK and was $49 on EBay. I'd rather use a used, cheaper camera long as it can take quality pictures. Point is, I don't want the darn thing falling out of the sky at 600+ miles per hour and if it breaks my family doesn't have a camera anymore....:-) So, the cheap one that can be hacked and has 7.1 megapixels will be used.

A potential issue has cropped up with my gps boostmobile phone. I noticed that the coverage range is only 20-25 miles east and west of Interstate 30, and then there is NOTHING. ZILCH. NADA. ZERO coverage. This is an obvious liability, because if the balloon travels very far out of range I'll lose it. So what to do? Well, I can try one of those balloon tracking website but so far they haven't been usable to me. I've entered in latitude, longitude, ect., but apparently the programs are very specific about what data they'll accept and it doesn't come with instructions. I'll keep trying.

My plan is to add another antenna so the signal will travel further. That is all I can do with the present phone.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It's coming together!

Well, I'm learning a lot about near-space technologies and the math of what needs to happen. This weekend I experimented and relatively safely produced small amounts of hydrogen that lifted several small balloons into the air. The chemical reaction needs to be controlled, however, due to heat and the caustic nature of chemicals involved. When sodium hydroxide comes into contact with latex, even the fumes of the sodium hydroxide can be very dangerous and start eating away at the balloon; two of them popped before I was able to fill them up completely. So, after thinking about a way to do this on a larger scale that would do what I need, it finally came to me on Monday. I have an idea of how to produce hydrogen; while of course hydrogen is flammable I think it will be reasonably safe given the small amounts I'm needing for this.

On another note, I also realized that the 3-foot (30 gram) weather balloons I purchased will not have enough lift to do that job. I put in an order for 2 weather balloons that are 6.5 feet in diameter (200 gram), as the 3-footers could only lift the gps device...can't take pictures like that.

So, it's a learning process. I also learned from my neighbor and math professor the mathematical (who'd of guessed it? lol) issues behind my goal of obtaining a sunrise photo from near-space. My plan is to release the balloon payload at the appropriate time before sunrise and take pictures of the sun as it comes around the sphere of the Earth; that would be an awesome photo, an image often reserved for astronauts.

Also, the camera I have isn't up to the job either. Thinking that any digital camera could be hacked to take pictures every 5-10 seconds, I didn't pay enough attention and I've learned another valuable lesson. I returned the camera and purchased a Canon brand that can download CHDK (Canon Hacker's Development Kit); another lesson learned.

I imagine there will be many lessons like this as I put this project together. I have to say I'm completely willing to learn these lessons and admit to mistakes as they come up. Suffice it to say, my drive to reach near-space and put a camera up there is sufficient to get this done...we will make it to near-space.

One thing has worked without any hitches or glitches. The gps enabled phone has worked flawlessly every time. I added a small antenna to the inside of the phone, because looking to my east there are some really isolated areas and I'm concerned that signal could be lost if we go too far east. I've been paying attention to the jet stream, and currently it is over Arkansas and Louisiana reaching speeds up to 120-mph (as of 2/23/2010). I'm not launching while the jet stream is overhead...I love the ocean, but driving to Georgia to pick up my camera isn't what I had in

So, the new camera that is CHDK compatible is in the mail, the larger balloons are in the mail, and I'm learning more about my payload and how to get the weight down. I'm hoping to make my own hydrogen to keep future mission costs down and increase self-sufficiency. Of course, some might think this is dangerous, and I suppose it potentially could be but hear me out. The amounts of hydrogen I'm producing are very small, and I don't plan on picking up a cigarette or cigar smoking habit anytime soon. It is produced outside, in a well-ventilated area, and is produced and put directly into the balloon shortly before launching the craft. The apparatus to safely and efficiently produce hydrogen is a work in progress, and I'm developing it in a responsible and cost-effective manner.

I found a lighter payload container as well. The one I used before was a heavy-duty styrofoam container (not like those cheap ice-chests used in other launches....I can stand on mine without breaking it and I'm a 5' 11" 215-pound man), but this one is just as strong yet smaller and lighter. The walls and lid are just as thick (2-3 inches thick) as the old one, but it's shorter. I don't need any extra room besides enough to put the gps phone and camera, along with hand-warmers taped to them. Other than that, I'll put something light inside to hold the camera steady, but that is it. I'm learning that weight is one of the most important considerations; yes I know, it might sound common-sense, but you'd be surprised how heavy a payload can get simply putting things like fins on the sides and cardboard tube to keep the camera in place. JP Aerospace uses trusses that are apparently made of carbon fiber. I won't have that kind of budget, but PVC tubing might work. Regardless, the entire payload must be under 4 pounds per FAA regulations.

I'll start posting pictures about this project as it moves forward. If successful, I plan on selling advertising spots in order to fund my ultimate goal: a small restaurant and viewing area at the edge of space. Depending upon donations and sales, this could take anywhere from a few short years to a decade or more, but make no mistake: my goal is to make near-space affordable and attainable to the masses. Views of space should not, and must not be limited to those who can afford a "budget" ticket of $200,000. Even though it admittedly is far cheaper than a $23 million-dollar trip to the ISS, or a $100 million-dollar trip in a Russian space capsule slingshot around the moon (yes, a company says they can do it for $100 million...what a deal!). If a person saved long enough, by retirement they could potentially pay $200,000 for a quick trip to suborbital space. However, I'm wanting to do this in a truly sustainable and profitable fashion. A high-altitude airship would be the cheapest & safest way to see the Earth from near-space. Ticket prices could be affordable to many; instead of going on a 3-day cruise, how about a day or evening in near-space? $500-$5,000 is what I'm hoping for. $5,000 if I can turn it into a near-space hotel for a handful of guests...don't expect the swimming pool though :-)! I'm thinking people could pay $500 or a bit more to board the craft in the late afternoon, have a dinner pre-ordered so we can keep weight and costs down (your meal would be chosen beforehand, but prepared up in near-space so it's fresh and yummy but I don't have to keep 100 things on the menu...or maybe a choice of 3-5 items?). Well, that is enough for now. I'll write more later. After the first successful launch, I'm going to start letting individuals, companies, and organizations of any and all flavors sponsor a launch with varying dollar amounts. A logo or slogan of their choosing will then be recorded and flown into near-space and be recorded on camera. It's going to take a bit of doing to get that established, and I need to have a successful launch with pictures. Time will tell...

I hope at some point you'll join me for drinks and dinner at 100,000 feet...the sunset will be fabulous.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Near-space here we come!

I've always been fascinated with space and space exploration. Whether it is manned, unmanned, or through a small telescope on the ground I'm into it. As a teenager I spent my jr. high years saving up allowance and birthday money to purchase lenses and filters for my six-inch Meade 6600 reflector my father bought as a birthday gift. Sadly, I sold that telescope during my early adult years, but now that I'm a bit older and wiser I've gotten back into it. I work for a small, liberal arts university in Arkansas, and we are fortunate to have a physics department, planetarium, and several telescopes ranging from 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain to a whopping 14" Celestron....that thing is so large one has to see it to appreciate it....also, it's so cumbersome to move around that I've never seen it move in the 3 years I've been here...that's a lesson to keep in mind when purchasing a telescope. If it's too big, it won't go anywhere unless you also plan on building an observatory building and mount to go with it.

So, I purchased a small 5" Celestron reflector for around $100, and I then remembered why I had always wanted a larger telescope. Yes, small telescopes are relatively inexpensive and a great way to determine whether or not you and/or your children will be interested enough to justify the investment. Well, my children are definitely interested and my youngest daughter braved the cold last night to view a star cluster and Mars. For several months, I did research in terms of price, aperture, and model of telescope. I wanted at least a 8" telescope, and the new "go-to" features were a must. I remembered being a teenager and having one heck of a time finding anything other than the most visible planets (Jupiter, Saturn, & Venus), and the Great Nebula of Orion (and the galaxy Andromeda). So for sure, I wanted an object locator, and an aperture big enough to see the planets and deep-space objects at high power. I finally came to decide upon the Orion XT10i Intelliscope model. It is relatively portable, has an electronic object locator, and 10 inches is enough to see detail on some pretty dim objects. Shipped to your door for $769, it's a real bargain and I'd encourage anyone looking for a 10" scope to consider this great deal.

Ok, on to the near-space project. My stepfather was a nuclear physicist from Stanford University back in the 1960's. He taught physics at Evergreen Community College in the late 1970's where he met my mother when she was a student. The man was simply brilliant, and had an appreciation for the arts and fun things in life that few individuals of his caliber often possess. For example, he used plastic sheets to form a sphere that he and his students then filled up with air, sealed with duct tape, and then walked out onto a body of water. Like a hamster-sphere for humans, he walked out onto the water, and recommended that one bring their "friends and a six-pack of beer." Like I said, the man was fun and brilliant, and my only regret is that I wasn't old enough to appreciate him in the manner I do now.

Recently, I have been reading about how some MIT students put together a near-space project for a grand total of $150, and took pictures of the blackness of space and the spherical nature of our small planet. Intrigued, I looked at what they did and started to assemble parts. At this time, the GPS has been activated and tested, my payload being assembled, and the weather balloons are in the mail. My plan is to launch before sunrise so that I can try and obtain a picture of the sun coming around the curve of the Earth...that would be amazing and the first of its kind I've seen. Most people seem to favor launching in the early afternoon, and admittedly trying to find the payload at night would be a nightmare even with GPS. But...if I launch maybe 1-2 hours before sunrise I'm hoping to get lucky with a sunrise from space...a view typically reserved for astronauts.

Near-space is not a safe place to be. At around 60,000 feet, humans can no longer live without a pressure suit or capsule. As we go up to 100,000 feet and higher, the temperature drops to -60 below-zero Fahrenheit , and radiation is 100X stronger than it is on the surface of our planet. The surrounding environment is 99% vacuum as well. However, one is still close enough to the planet to feel the full effects of gravity, which is good for us because I'd like to have my camera and GPS-device back!

So why do this? Why spend a few dollars to put this project together? I'd have to attribute this to my step-father; that eccentric and wonderful man who refused to work on weapons of mass destruction towards the end of the Cold War and decided to work on projects that would help people. His work on designing equipment to find and defuse old land-mines has truly saved countless lives. Don't ever take people for granted; they're gone before you sometimes realize how important they were. Wish the man was still here...I sure could use his help on this project and those to come if I'm successful.

I'm doing this because I can. I'm doing it so my children and others can see that space is not so far away, and it doesn't cost millions to get most of the way. JP Aerospace is a non-profit organization billed as "America's Other Space Program" and they have a fascinating way to reach space. My words will not do them justice, so I'm providing a link to their site. The project is called "Airship to Orbit" and utilizes lighter-than-air craft to ultimately reach orbit and beyond. While there are many obstacles and technical issues to overcome, the idea has been patented and they're carrying out real research and tests. The fascinating thing is that every piece of research is paid for by using some part of it as a profit-center. No debt, no large government budget...they're simply doing it. They sell advertising slots on near-space craft, which to me is nothing short of brilliant; the photos are amazing. Who knows, maybe I'll do something similar if I can pull off my sunrise photo-shoot. It's relatively cheap, but there are plenty of ways it can go wrong. That's why I'm doing this first flight; to see if I can do it.

Here is their website, enjoy!

I'll start posting pictures as I take them. I'm going to make a video for the launch and (hopeful) retrieval of the payload w/ pictures. I just received notice that my weather balloons were not shipped out when they initially said they were. Shipping will be refunded, which is good. Also, it allows for more time to develop my craft and payload. I may add another camera too.

So, that is me. I really like space, and hope to go there someday. There is no doubt humans will become a space faring race, and the technology is finally coming of age. New rockets are being developed, some of which can cut down a trip to Mars from 6 months to 1 month. The finding of water ice on the moon means we can truly start building a sustainable base there. In fact, it'd be easier in many respects than the ISS has been. You have 1/6th gravity, and we'll need to put astronauts there for weeks & months at a time to determine if 1/6th is enough to stay healthy. I hope I live long enough to see a real city on another planet or our moon; I'd love to see terraforming begin on Mars...I'd go in a heartbeat; maybe I'll get that chance.

Back to near-space. I'm naming the craft "Anderson -1" in memory of my stepfather; it'll be posted on the side of the payload container. I'll update this blog as things come together and my balloons come in. I'm eager to try this, but don't want to rush it and end up botching the entire effort. I'm going to take my time so that it actually works. We'll see...maybe I'll get that sunrise from space.