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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.

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