At one point in time, millions upon millions of government dollars were required to fly into space. Today, flight into the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere, or near-space as it is often called, can be accomplished with a little determination, technical know-how, and a trip to the hardware store, a fact that a group of German students have recently proved by shooting HD video from 100,000 feet in the air.
So, how did is this possible? One word: balloon.
Traditionally, most people think of rockets when they hear the word ‘spaceflight.’ However, rockets are extremely complex and expensive, with one or both factors putting most people out of the running to be even an amateur rocket scientist. Now, as an alternative to rockets, there are balloons, which are as simple as rockets are complicated as you simple blow them up and let them rise. So, in theory, all one has to do is tie a camera to a balloon and let it go.
Well, things are a bit more complicated than that.
First of all, not just any balloon will do. To get high into the upper reaches of the atmosphere where Earth meets the blackness of space, one needs a weather balloon, which is made of tough, thick material designed to withstand the thin atmosphere. Near the ground, the outward pressure in the balloon is balanced by the high pressure of miles worth of air pressing down on it. Result: the balloon doesn’t pop. High in the atmosphere where the air pressure is very low, the outward pressure of the air in the balloon will be far stronger than the atmospheric pressure outside. Result: high pressure in balloon, very low pressure outside, balloon pops. However, high-altitude weather balloons resist popping fort the longest time, hence why and would be space photographer needs one to get as high as possible.
Next problem: getting your gear back. Obviously, no camera can survive a fall from several miles up in the sky, so a parachute is a must. Unfortunately, by virtue of having to parachute from 20 miles up, a small, camera-containing basket can drift a long, long way, far from the launch point. The good news is that any GPS equipped cell phone can be used to track the camera’s progress as it returns to Earth. With a tracking unit, the balloonists can track their camera to the point of touchdown, no need for big, clunky radio gear.
A third problem with sending a balloon into near-space: temperature. In the upper reaches of the atmosphere, it is cold, very cold, as in approaching 100 below zero cold. Now, while there are some really tough cameras on the market, the temperature ratings for guaranteed operation often stop at around 15 degrees above zero. Below that, manufacturers promise nothing. So, going into near-space is beyond even the toughest cameras’ endurance limits, thus necessitating a heater and/or heavy insulation. In addition to keeping the camera warm, the insulation can also provide a cushion in case of a rough landing.
Okay, while sending a balloon up to the border of space is not a simple a tying a camera to a helium balloon and letting it go. On the other hand, it is, with a little know-how and determination, something that anyone willing to put in some effort can strive for and, if all goes according to plan, have some extremely cool pictures to boot.
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