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August 8, 2011 / vincentmcdermott

Space Race for DIYers

Cheap technology puts exploration within reach of amateur rocketeers

Plans are for Senatobia-1, a San Diego high school project, to track Endeavour's launch.

Vincent McDermott
Apr. 30, 2011 / National Post

As hundreds of spectators in VIP seats, on rooftops and along beaches gathered to watch space shuttle Discovery’s final launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 24, another observer watched from a vantage point 33 kilometres above the Earth.

Named Robonaut-1, the probe began as a red cooler used to carry organs for transplant recipients. Built by San Diego high school students, it was outfitted with a GPS system, an onboard computer and six cameras. The mission: Capture images of Discovery leaving Earth one last time. The cost: about $2,500 in parts. A similar experiment, Senatobia-1, was planned for Friday to capture the final takeoff of the space shuttle Endeavour, but it was put on hold when a mechanical fault forced NASA to postpone the operation.

Like other probes sent to the heavens by hundreds of other amateur hobbyists, Robonaut-1 was a world apart from a traditional government space program: small, creative, privately built and cheap -the digital cameras on board accounting for most of the cost. Hundreds of other researchers, students and hobbyists have used similar ballooning techniques to touch the stratosphere, often capturing their own footage of the blue, curving edge of space to show off online.

“A tank of helium, large model rocket parachute and a weather balloon is all you need to fly a mission to the edge of space,” said Bill Brown, an en-gineer who has worked with NASA and is part of the engineering club Makers Local 256 in Huntsville, Ala.

Spurred by increasing availability of cheap, high-quality electronics and online howto manuals, the do-it-yourself space race has heated up since 2009, when three MIT students launched Project Icarus, a high-altitude experiment that captured video and photographs of the Earth from the stratosphere. Their project cost about US$150 and involved parts that came from previous experiments and eBay. When the footage was posted online, the images immediately became Internet sensations.

Helium-and hydrogenfilled weather balloons can carry a payload to an altitude of 30 kilometres or more. (NASA says space officially begins 100 kilometres above the planet. Near space is often defined as the zone from 18.3 kilometres and upward to true space.) The gas expands until the balloon pops. An insulated box containing the cameras then releases a parachute and falls toward Earth. The global positioning system of an ordinary cellphone guides the creators back to the device.

“DIY space programs are driven by finding the lowestcost methods for flight and recovery,” Mr. Brown said. In January, his engineering club won a competition to take the cheapest photograph from the edge of space. “The entire cost for the flight, including the helium and the balloon, was just over US$150,” he said.

The Robonaut-1 project was put together by San Diego high school students and sponsored by Quest for Stars, a non-profit group that teaches teens how to develop their own high-altitude ballooning experiments.

“When I told them we would be capturing NASA history, the students jumped right out of their seats,” said Bobby Russell, the founder and CEO of Quest for Stars. “They tested it, waterproofed it, designed a power source and recommended the cameras.”

Robonaut-1’s flight yielded nearly three hours of video footage, capturing its own launch from a field in Florida, its crash landing in the lot of a tree nursery and, in between, Discovery’s fly-by as it flew into space leaving a trail of exhaust in its wake.

By June of this year, NASA’s three remaining space shuttles are expected to be decommis-sioned and sent to museums. Until a replacement is built, NASA will send equipment and astronauts into space using older, smaller Russian spacecraft.

Mr. Russell said while mainstream space exploration still belongs to governments, corporations and the super-rich, he believes it is only a matter of time before individuals become serious contenders in exploring the cosmos.

“Look what happened when the government granted the public access to the Internet. There is no way they could have predicted the innovations that would come,” he said. “With the technology that is available to the public, I truly believe that right here, right now, is the start of the Internet revolution of space flight.”

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