Images of Earth at a lofty altitude of 118,000 feet (22.3 miles) are within reach of anyone with a little extra time, money, and ambition.
Take 21-year-old Josh Taylor (Surrey, United Kingdom) for instance, who launched a high-altitude “space balloon” last October, complete with a payload he constructed in his garage.
Composed of a polystyrene box lined with foil and wrapped with gaffer tape, the payload contained two cameras, a GMS module (for tracking position), hand warmers (for the cameras), and a bag of mustard and crest seeds (for scientific study). While one camera snapped photos of the journey — 2,800 in all — a 360-degree panoramic lens on the other camera captured the heady journey on video, which Taylor posted to YouTube after the makeshift craft returned to earth. Or, in this case, to water: it landed roughly 3 miles from shore in the North Sea.
Dubbed the “Taylor Made Space Balloon,” the project cost Taylor and his project partner, Edward Bishop (also 21 and Taylor's lifelong friend), around 100 British pounds each (a total of about $315 U.S.) and scored them international acclaim on news stations such as ABC and BBC.
The team is not the first to successfully construct a space balloon payload and record the adventure on camera. In fact, Taylor found his inspiration from a YouTube video of an American father-son duo that sent their iPhone 4 into space in 2010. The iPhone 4 was used as a GPS device to track the payload and find it once it parachuted down, while a camera recorded the journey. Although such balloons do not actually make it into space, often they can reach well into the Earth’s stratosphere, the atmospheric layer just above the troposphere in which we live.
“I thought it was so cool,” Taylor says, “I watched it thinking, ‘That’s awesome for such little money and without the need for big scientific corporations’ . . . that really inspired me and kick-started the project.”
Over the course of ten months, Taylor recorded his progress in detail on his blog JoshingTalk, which grew in readership as the launch date of October 1 approached. For a young man whose interests lie with media, not science, Taylor says the research he had to do in order to tackle his goal was rewarding.
“I did a lot of scientific learning throughout the project,” he says. “[I learned] things like the way helium works in the outer atmosphere and how pressure expands the balloon and what kind of materials work [in such low-pressure environments]. . . I loved the practical aspect of it.”
Taylor collaborated with the student-run society Cambridge University Spaceflight in England. The society provided various algorithms to predict landing locations and calculate “balloon burst potential” from info such as the balloon's mass and the density of gas inside.
For Taylor and his partner, helium was their gas of choice. Helium’s gas density is around 0.18 kg/m3, which is less than one-fifth as dense as room-temperature air at sea level (1.2 kg/m3). Helium is non-flammable, too, which makes it a popular option for high-altitude balloons, including the towering research balloons flown by the NASA Balloon Program that can be as tall as 480 feet.
Unlike large-scale research balloons, space balloons are more of a burgeoning hobby that’s cropping up in people’s backyards and garages. Moreover, space balloons tend to have a short lifetime of approximately a few hours, whereas research balloons can remain aloft for days to weeks on end collecting scientific data.
For both space and weather balloons, altitude is uncontrolled — they continue to rise until they pop. The explosion is inevitable: as the balloon rises the surrounding atmosphere thins, decreasing the pressure on the balloon’s surface. With less atmosphere pressing on the balloon the bottled-up helium inside it expands, swelling the balloon as it does so: Taylor’s balloon was 5 feet in diameter at the time of the launch and may have expanded to 25 feet before bursting. Eventually the balloon reaches a height where the balloon’s material cannot stretch any more and the balloon bursts from the inside-out.
Space balloons offer a unique opportunity to anyone interested in science, art, or both. The basic physics involved provides an approachable platform for learning, as exploited by NASA’s BalloonSAT Exploring Program, and the video and photos can be breathtaking. As Taylor and his teammate proved, curiosity and perseverance — with or without a science degree — are the main ingredients needed to achieve great heights.
Although this space balloon is in pieces like the many before it, Taylor aims to launch a second in mid-2012. Sticking with the simple, inexpensive appeal of his first project, Taylor says that there will be more gaffer tape to come.