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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Coming down from the mountain...

After spending many hours reviewing the photos, I have had thoughts I deemed worth writing down.  Seeing the Earth in such a manner, and having done it in such a humble manner, I find myself transfixed...and in awe of creation.  The blue orb of our home circles endlessly on a journey around a average star that is on the edge of a spiral galaxy....I was able to capture a brief moment in the history of our universe that will never happen again.  Once one has taken in those views, and pondered on how endless and vast our universe is, how can one come back and operate normally within human society?  After viewing such marvelous sights, how can I dare turn my attentions to mundane tasks such as taking out the garbage, paying bills, or checking the mail?  How is it our rather absurd existence makes any sense in the context of the photos you have seen (or are about to see)?  It seems almost a cosmic anomoly, a brief episode that will exist for a moment and disappear into the blackness of eternity, while the universe moves on. 

Our best hope for humanity is to spread out across the solar system, to boldy enter the void, and to colonize the solar system and beyond.  I can't wait, and hope I live to see the beginnings of a permanent base.  I think near-space is a wonderful place to offer affordable space-tourism for the masses.  Even the most humble among us would be changed forever upon seeing the planet in such a manner first-hand.  It is life-changing. 


Saturday, March 27, 2010

God must be a painter, to create such a beautiful world....

The pictures came through! I haven't been this tired since I was in my late teens....but the results are nothing short beyond words.
After fiddling with my 23-foot PVC pipe contraption for several hours of wrangling I was finally able to break the craft loose from its treetop resting point. Upon opening the payload I immediately noticed that the craft was in amazingly good condition. While the parachute was torn on two grommets, EVERYTHING in the payload was sealed and in the same position I left it, which is saying something because every single electronic device had been attached via velcro. Also, the movement I noticed on the video was not the constant spinning I've seen on similar projects, which tells me I'm on to something. While statistically the number of usable photographs was not what I'd like it to be, the fact that the camera continued shooting over 3500 photos without the batteries dying or anything freezing up is a testimony to modern engineering, and I'd say at least 50% of the photographs were usable, without a huge blur. I have painstakingly gone through all the photographs, and found the ones I thought to be the "best of the best" for your viewing.

Enough are the photos I went through so much trouble to obtain. I may add more later, as well as the video which is not at quite as high a resolution. I'll need donations and sponors to invest in an HD video camera and build upon this success, but more about that later...

For now, enjoy the photos...I certainly have been.  To see the full photo, click on them because they are partially cut on the webpage, so click and check them out the way they should be viewed, or visit the photobucket site for more pictures from the final frontier.

And they are...

Selected Pictures from Anderson - 1

Sunrise.  I did not complete my secondary goal of sunrise from near-space, which would have viewed the sun as it comes around the sphere of our planet, with the backdrop of black space around it.  I was too late.  I was extremely cautious on this first launch, as it is too easy to fumble and either burst the balloon, tangle a line, forget to press a button on the camera, release the balloon before you attach the payload, ect. I did obtain a sunrise, but the space sunrise will be for the next launch and I am confident we will obtain our photos.  Anderson - 2 is already in the planning stages, with many lessons learned and improvements already in the works.  Hopefully through sponsors & donations I can purchase a new or used high-definition video camera for the next launch.  If anyone has an older yet functional one they're willing to donate, I'd love to send it up!

Glare, or meteorite?  Could be glare....

Condensation on the camera lens is apparent

After journeying to the edge of space...we get stuck in a tree!  That was the hardest part of the entire project, besides getting stuck in the mud at the launch site.  More pictures are posted at:

Until next time....enjoy the view, and remember how special and fragile our world truly is.  Indeed, we know of no other place like it at this is a veritable Garden of Eden in a cosmic without measure or boundaries.

SUCCESS! Well, for the most part!

The launch, flight, & landing of our craft was SUCCESSFUL! It was released around 6:40 a.m., a bit later than anticipated due to this being my first launch and my desire not to rush anything. I have to tell you, it is really easy to screw something simple up (like filling the balloon too rapidly and accidentally popping it, or having a hand slip and letting the darn thing go without the payload, ect). The ascent rate was downright awesome. The craft flew immediately over lake DeGray and disappeared from view within 3-4 minutes. I have read of people being able to see their craft and track it for an hour...this thing was MOVING! About two hours later, at 9:15 a.m. I received a gps signal from 80 miles away, south of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Unfortunately, my SUV was stuck in the mud all the way up to the door and was so frustrating I almost took it as an omen and cancelled the launch, but realized this was my only good window to launch before spring break is over. The winds were 4-5mph but had been at 25 mph and would soon return since we have a new front coming in Saturday. The cell phone battery died, I was stuck in the mud, and I walked all the way to the ranger station, who graciously allowed me to call a wrecker. $75 later, a nice guy named Ray pulled me out of the mud.

We then went home, fed the children and set lunch out for them, and set out to retrieve our craft. Honestly, I half-expected to receive no signal at all, but there it was...every 10 minutes, it was sending out a signal within the same 20-foot area. It landed in a wooded area, full of pine trees (go figure, Pine Bluff?). A bit of a drive later, we were walking around in the wooded area. You can look at the map where it landed at the link I provided below. Have to say, finding it on the sattelite image is a lot easier than findng it out in the woods. While this thing should stick out like a sore thumb (and I have those now!), it took 2 hours to find it. We were actually starting to think we wouldn't find it. I used my cellphone (with a car charger now...good investment!), called my oldest daughter and had her guide us from the sattelite image. In the future, I'm going to bring the cellphone gps which displays your current gps coordinates and can be compared to the SPOT gps image (so then you can compare where you are to where it should be). After 2 hours or so of searching, my wife FOUND IT! There it was, dangling in the trees....about 40 feet above us. Also, I need to mention that we walked 2-3 miles before coming to where it is since the area is blocked off from vehicle traffic. I tried shaking it, climbing it, using a fallen tree to retrieve it...we were there for HOURS trying to get this darn thing down! After realizing we'd need something else to do this, and darkness approaching, we went back home. I'm going to Atwoods this morning and will piece together several lengths of PVC pipe to form a long pole in sections. That should do it. So, at this point we have had a successful launch, flight time, and landing (the craft is completely intact from what I can see). It is still possible the cameras failed and we have no pictures, but I think it is unlikely. I used brand-new lithium batteries in the camera and gps unit, and used two cameras for images (one video and one still) in the event one fails. I do not yet know if the images of sunrise were successful, or if the camera took pictures all the way up and down. I am leaving right now to put a pole together, which will be useful for future launches since we have so many trees in Arkansas. Once we retrieve the craft, I'll start going through the up to 5,000 still images and video we have potentially recorded. I'll post when we get back home this afternoon and then the work of sorting all the images will begin (provided they are there, of course). Talk to you soon!

Here is the GPS page link...check it out!

Aaron & Danielle

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Launch time!

The helium tank is loaded up in the back of my vehicle, and the two cameras have been positioned and tested. I spent some time earlier this week balancing the payload and checking a few things here and there. I have prepared, I have read all I can find, and I figured up a few calculations. The best time I found to launch is tomorrow morning at about 5:30 a.m. on Friday, March 26th. Sunrise at 100K feet occurs about 24 minutes sooner than where I am currently at, so I have to factor that in. Also, with a calculated 4 pounds of free lift I'll have an ascent rate of 1200 feet per minute (which should be great). Given the balloon is 500 grams (larger than some, smaller than others), I calculated the burst diameter & height at various amounts of free lift (from 1 to 8). It's an educated guess, to be sure, but I am hoping it will take about an hour to reach optimum altitude. At that point, it's up to a bit of luck and certain variables coming together in a fashion that results in what I am hoping to accomplish: sunrise from space. The two cameras each have their own settings: one will take still photographs every 5 seconds, and the other will take video. Fresh lithium batteries have been placed into each device, and it's all up to the wind and fate at this point. As far as a launch site, I considered my front yard, but there are far too many tall trees and I don't want to risk the balloon getting tangled up and popping. Even the Quad at HSU has quite a few risky objects that could spell potential doom before we get over a thousand feet. So, where to release? About a week ago, I was looking through my 10" dobsonian out near Lake DeGray and found an area that is free from trees and other obstructions. The dike on your way out to Hot Springs (Highway 7?) offers a good spot to release the craft. I'll pull out to the end of the dike to fill up the balloon and make final preparations, and then walk out to the crest of the hill to release it. Even though it will be dark, I might be able to see the craft for quite a while. There you have it! The next post will either be my endless lamenting on how it didn't work out, or photos from near-space. Wish me luck, I'll need every bit I can get!


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Everything complete!

The parachute is finished, the payload layout finalized & balanced, and I am now waiting on one thing: the jet stream. The jet stream, as most of you probably already know, is a relatively high-speed wind that can easily be over 100 miles-per-hour. While we could potentially launch into the jet stream, I want to maximize the chance that our humble near-space nanosatellite will land as close as possible to our launch site. I love a good road trip, but I'd rather not drive a hundred miles or more to pick up our payload. The balloon we're using has a normal inflation rate diameter of 10 feet, and the volume of a sphere (4/3 X pie X r^3; so, I computed 4/3 X 3.1416 X 5^3 which equals 522 cubic feet of helium at "normal" inflation). I weighed the payload at 1.8 pounds, and I read from the students at MIT that they calculated a "free-lift" ascent rate of 300 feet per minute for each 1 pound of free lift (free lift is the force of lift the balloon will have in addition to the payload; more free lift means a faster ascent rate, which is good so long as the balloon is not filled up to the point where it will burst before reaching 100K feet). If we want our balloon to reach 90-120K feet in about 30-45 minutes, it will need 10 pounds of free lift, or about 12 pounds of lift entirely. 15 cubic feet of helium lifts one pound, so we are looking at 12X15 = 180 cubic feet of helium. At 10 pounds of free lift, the balloon should rise at 3,000 feet per minute and reach 120K feet in 40 minutes. Additionally, we will be filling the balloon about 1/3 of it's "normal" inflation size, so there should be enough room for expansion.

Well, that about does it. If anyone has anything to add or something I might have missed or miscalculated, please don't hesitate to let me know. This is a first-time launch by someone without an engineering or physics background/training. I will be checking the weather reports, and plan the launch for the early hours so we can get our sunrise photo. With an estimated 30-40 minute ascent to a decent view of our planet, and the fact that at 100K feet the sun rises as if you are 6-degrees further towards the direction the sun rises (about 20 minutes earlier), I'm taking a stab at launching about an hour before sunrise. That gives us time to obtain a great photo, and I'm not having to launch too early in the morning! It is spring break, and sleeping in is almost a tradition for those of us in higher education! I'll post the evening before launch. Wish me luck, comrades!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring Break and the launch date are rapidly approaching...

Well Friends,

Spring Break is rapidly approaching, and my expected launch date is coming with it. I still need to assemble one important piece: the parachute. It is going to be simple and small, but enough to slow our near-spacecraft down in the atmosphere and help prevent any damage to the delicate electronics inside. I have also added a "prop" of sorts in front of the main camera, in the hopes of attracting some attention from one of my favorite beverage producers. Red Bull is one heck of an energy drink, and now that I'm in my 30's it helps to combat fatigue after a long day at the office vs. giving me energy. I'll post more about this later, but as some of you may know Red Bull is sponsoring an attempt at the highest freefall in history. Joe Kittinger still holds this record from the 1950's as part of Project Excelsior (a high-altitude balloon program that was a precursor to the U.S. space program), and my plan is to send a can of Red Bull into near-space. Who knows? Maybe the company will express interest in the footage and I'll get my corporate sponsorship rolling (and some Red Bull as partial compensation wouldn't hurt either!).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Payload nearly complete!

My payload is coming together nicely! I am posting several photos so everyone can see what it looks like and how things are moving along. Most amateur near-space balloons have a problem with spinning, which I hope to avoid by designing the payload differently. Fins are on three sides of the payload, and I am also going to attach the payload to the balloon with 2-4 strings instead of 1. With only one string, the payload swings around until tension builds up and it then rotates the opposite direction until the tension builds up yet again and the process repeats itself for the entire flight. While I have yet to attach my payload to a balloon for testing, I've kept this in mind and think having 2 or more attachments will limit the amount of spinning so that it will only spin when the balloon does. Additionally, a hole was added to the bottom of the payload to take a video of the first hour of ascent. I'm trying to add another camera so it will have three but two may have to suffice. My A480 has not yet been ported for CHDK and as such can only take a one hour video at this time. My wife's old cell phone camera will record for an hour as well, but it is light and while the resolution is limited I want every camera I can put on it to limit the chance of a complete camera failure. So far, the lithium batteries have held out long enough during testing that I shouldn't need an additional power supply, but I may go ahead and do it for sheer caution purposes. The cameras each have a DC out, and they could each be plugged into a power pack of some kind. Not sure if the weight will make this viable, but the added security might be worth it. Launch week is from March 20th to March 28th; I'm using the whole week so I can pick the day when winds are the calmest and the jet stream is furthest away from Arkansas.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Almost there!

The GPS unit came in. This is good because a test using the boost mobile GPS i290 phone confirmed that GPS does not work outside a small area surrounding Interstate 30. I would not have found my payload had I tried to use the boost mobile that would have been awful and a huge waste of time, money, and effort. So, I am now putting the payload together. I'll post pictures of it when fully assembled. Now all I need to do is put that together, test the current battery configuration, and rent the helium tank. I'm testing the battery's to see if they'll take pictures long enough for the entire flight, or I may need to add another power supply somehow. Given how much I've had to reconfigure everything else, it'd be a real shame to get the payload up into nearspace without having enough juice to take the appropriate pictures!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

500-gram balloon

The 500-gram balloon came in today. This big daddy is 10-feet in diameter at normal inflation, and has a burst diameter of 15-feet! It holds over 500 cubic feet of helium, but the helium tank I'm renting is only 300 feet. Still, I think this will be good because the balloon will A) Have 20 pounds of lift; and B) be a little more than half-full. This allows for a good ascent rate (which is important to get up there fast as possible), and a higher ultimate altitude because the balloon can expand more.

Now all I'm waiting on is the new SPOT GPS unit. Once that comes in and the account has been set up for tracking, I will put the entire payload together and start finalizing my project for launch. The launch date has been set for the early morning hours of Saturday, March 20th if weather permits. If the jet stream is too far south and in Arkansas I'll wait until it clears up but if everything is looking good I'll launch that day. Also, I can rent the helium tank for the entire week I'm off for spring break, which will allow an optimum time frame for launch and preparation. I want everything to be as perfect as possible because I only have one shot at this. If it is not successful, it might be a while before I will do it again. That is why it MUST be successful! But of course, the "best laid plans of mice and men..."

One more package to come in, and then I can finalize the payload and put it all together. It's getting closer, and sometimes I can hardly believe what I am about to do. The idea that an average person can put together a small project that offers views of space reserved often for astronauts and an elite few is truly innovative, though I am hardly the first to do this. I think it is a good thing that "regular" people are doing this now. It makes space that much less mystifying; it's attainable. The day average people can go to space and make something out of themselves is the day I'm waiting for...

Sunrise from space...the expensive way!
I'm trying to do this on a shoestring budget...
Hopefully I'll be succesful....
We'll know very soon!

MIT students

Almost forgot. I'm using some of the methods outlined by the two MIT students; here is a link to their website so you can see photos and videos of what I plan to do. My idea is a bit different though, because I plan on launching several hours before sunrise. I should be able to have photos/videos of the city lights at night, and my goal is to see the sun as it comes around the sphere of our humble yet glorious planet. Closest photo I've seen that resembles what I want to do was taken from the space shuttle astronauts and ISS crew. I'm posting a picture of that too so you can get an idea of what I'm trying to do....

The remarkable thing about my photos (if successful) would be that I did them for around $300 instead of millions and billions of dollars spent to put astronauts into space who then take photos of sunrise (the components I used added up to a little over $300..(this doesn't include the parts I purchased but then ended up either upgrading or discarding after testing; call it a lesson in near-space research!). I also did this as an individual project...I am not an engineer or physicist. I do not have an elaborate budget or crew to depend on. I do have an advanced degree, but it's in psychology and counseling, not anything remotely aerospace. However, I do have a few university colleagues who have assisted me with some of the engineering and physics aspects of this project. Once we have a successful launch I'll talk more about the next step and who will be involved...I'm excited, and hope you are too.

Here is the link to the MIT student's website:

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A470, SPOT GPS, and a bigger balloon

Well, things are moving along but I've learned a few lessons. I wanted to keep this as cheap as possible, so I bought the smallest balloons I thought might do the job. Since 15 cubic feet of helium will lift one pound, and my payload is around that, I thought several 30 gram balloons would do the trick. They will not. In fact, the 200 gram balloon would only lift the GPS-enabled phone and NOT the camera at all. So, I went ahead and ordered a 500-gram balloon. With a 10-foot diameter and around 523 cubic feet of helium at normal inflation size, it should have PLENTY of free lift to get the job done. I need the balloon to go up as fast as possible, while still having enough space within the balloon to burst at over 100,000 feet. Actually, my 300 cubic-foot helium tank won't will it up but a bit over half-way. 300 cubic feet should provide 20 pounds of lift, and given that my craft should weigh around 1 pound this thing should really fly!

Another issue I've decided warrants change is my boostmobile i290 phone. It only works if the cellphone has reception, and I looked at my coverage map on boost mobile's wasn't pretty. I could attempt it anyway, add an antenna and see if it holds up but given the fact I live in a rural, heavily wooded area (timber is big business here) I think it would be a fool's game to try and launch anyway. I need a GPS receiver that doesn't use cellphone coverage at all. So, enter the SPOT GPS unit. Yes, it's about $100 for the unit, shipping, and then another $9.99 per month for coverage and $49.99 per year for tracking, I think the added security is worth it. I can also see the value of having it since several years ago I went sailing and was literally marooned with my son on a small island...luckily I had my cellphone and was able to call my wife, who called the authorities and came to get us (and our boat which had gotten loose and sailed away by itself....) but if my phone hadn't had coverage or had died I would have been in real trouble until they finally launched a rescue effort; hours or days later without any food or water...

So, I justified the expense and bought it. I think it's a wise investment. Also, I figured out how to turn the LCD off on my Canon A470. I plan on putting at least two cameras in the payload if weight allows, because I'm also concerned about the risk of camera failure or not getting the "sunrise over the sphere of the earth" shot I'm wanting. One camera will take stills every 5 seconds, and another will take video; if I can put a third, it will too take stills on other side of the balloon.

I also found out about helium cost yesterday. The welding supply guys were eager to help out, and said if I kept the tank over a weekend they'd only charge a $50 deposit on the tank which would be refunded when I return it. It is normally almost $500 per month to rent the tank. 300-cubic feet of helium is $100, which isn't outside my budget. So, I'll have plenty of helium, a tank to put it in, and the project is coming together. Altogether, what I'll be launching appears to have a cost of around $250-300, which will be fine considering the upgrades I've added. I just can't justify using only a cellphone GPS phone when coverage is only a few miles east & west of my area. If the phone goes outside of that range, It will be unable to receive the cell phone signals and given the isolated nature of southern Arkansas, I'll likely never find it....maybe a random hunter might see it but the woods around here supposedly hide Bigfoot as well...if Bigfoot can hide here, so can my payload! I'm not risking it. The GPS unit will be worthwhile and the battery life is rated at 2-3 weeks so I see little risk in using it unless the unit completely fails for some reason. Even if I only have a broad search area, I will have at least a week or two to find it....that's good enough for me. The accuracy is supposed to be with 20-feet which should be plenty. I find that to be an acceptable risk.

So when is the launch date? I'm hoping sometime in March. Maybe spring break would be the best time, from March 19th to the 29th...that will give me time to wait for low wind conditions and the perfect launch time...

Remember, we're launching before sunrise so I can try and get a photo/video of the sun coming around the sphere of the earth! A view normally seen by the few who fly and work in space. I'm looking forward to making space accessible to the masses. A pipe dream maybe? I think given time, the right individuals, and donations/profits we can build a small restaurant with a fabulous view. Are you ready? If my first camera launch is successful and I get my sunrise photos, I'll start this program in earnest and enlist the help of my colleagues at HSU. A high-altitude zeppelin with a restaurant and viewing area could be very profitable, and relatively cheap to run vs. rides on the ISS, a Soyuz capsule around the moon, or a "budget" $200,000 Space Ship Two ticket for 5-minutes of weightlessness....

No, you won't get the weightlessness with my near-space ship, but you'll have one heck of a view and potentially stay for hours and hours...maybe even the evening or night if I can build a small hotel or bedrooms. The airships of the early 20th century also had something similar, but I guess they didn't want to or have the ability to go up to 100,000 feet or so.

That's one more issue for research: airship design and operation. Most of this comes from the early 1900's and one might think it's out of date, but that was when airships were the primary mode of intercontinental transportation (besides boats). Heck, even the Hindenburg travelled across the Atlantic 17 times and only crashed and burned when they applied a type of paint that was highly flammable...not a good idea with a hydrogen-filled craft.

Actually, I've considered hydrogen because at 100K feet there is very little air. Certainly not enough for combustion...but still, I don't think my restaurant could become a reality if I used hydrogen...10% greater lift and they can hold 50% more fuel than a helium-filled craft, but people have these images of the Hindenburg in their heads despite the fact that helium craft can and have fallen out of the sky ("Oh, the humanity!" Remember that one? Well....I've seen the old newsreel of it but of course I wasn't there :-)).