A ride into space, but nothing fancy

[Luke Geissbuhler] wanted to send something into space, a fun project his kids could get in on too. Instead of sending up a suite of electronic components they went with consumer electronics. The key element, an HD camera to record the event, is protected by a styrofoam shell and soft foam padding. To help ensure that the device was recovered an iPhone also made the trip, running a GPS tracking program that continuously updated the package’s location. To combat the ill-effects of severe cold some chemical hand warming packs also joined the flight.

As you can see after the break, it was a success. The camera documented an incredible ride, with a balloon rupture at 19 miles above the earth (that must be a calculated height as there’s no altimeter in the package). The pod came down gently thanks to a parachute and was recovered just 30 miles from where it launched.

[Thanks Ferdinand via Flabber]

67 thoughts on “A ride into space, but nothing fancy

  1. Generally with these types of things the package goes above the height that the gps can be found. At 19 km it would def. be on the ultimate limit of what gps companies say they can do, anything above 15 km is probably moot.

  2. @Craig Christ: no, there’s no GPS signal that high up, and if there is, there is no 3G coverage that high up to transmit the coordinates.

    Someone please correct me if I am wrong.

  3. @marks256: The International Space Station and Space Shuttle both use GPS… I don’t think it’s an issue of not having signal lock that high….

    @craig christ: I think that’s how they did it. I’m guessing the GPS app did more than just transmit the coords, but actually logged the data as well.

    I love this project! Keep up the good work Luke!!!

  4. there is most definitely GPS up there. There have been other balloon projects that have published their GPS coords for the entire flight, well above 15km.

    And GPS of course includes an altimeter, and even though it’s rarely displayed in consumer-level devices the data is there in the NMEA sentences.

  5. as someone that actually does this i can tell you a few things: number 1 being that yes yu do get a gps signal that high up but 99.999% of gps units cut out when they go above 15km or 500m/s, there are a few that require both conditions to be met. this is a sftware thing not hardware . they are programmed to do this so they cant be used in missile guidance systems which makes it very hard for us to do our job. Im fairly sure the one in the iphone isnt one that would still function at 30km up.
    2: it is very easy to calculate the burst height if you know the spec of the baloon ad payload.
    3: coordinates are transmitted via radio in normal payloads so it keeps working at height.
    4: i guess they just the iphone to recover it as it would kick in again when the device landed, rather than to plot the entire flight

  6. I wonder if you could get more altitude by (partially) filling one balloon inside a (completely) filled second balloon. When the outer one bursts, the inner one is just getting to its working size.

  7. the satellites that make up GPS are in orbit about 12000 miles above the surface of the earth, so yeah, it still works up there.

    don’t know if the iphone’s gps gives you altitude or not, but if it does it probably won’t work over 60,000 feet because GPS receivers that can provide altitude information about 60k feet are evidently considered “munitions”. imagine how cheap of guidance system you could come up with for your ballistic missile if you could just slap a $99 iphone in there.

  8. @Brad:
    As far as I know, commercially available GPS systems operate at a maximum altitude of 60,000 feet. This is not because of technical limitations, but it has been set to this limit to prevent misuse of GPS.

  9. There is a GPS signal but the iPhone would not be able to receive it. Commercial GPS ends at ~60,000 ft and 19 miles * 5280 ft > 60,000 ft, otherwise the military gets involved. Also the phone would have no way of relaying the position information back to the ground network. You could use a third party app with preloaded maps but you would not be able to access that info either since you can’t relay the the info back to yourself. Real time GPS feedback is pretty complicated.

  10. @craig and marks256:

    A GPS receiver that works above 11 miles is considered a munition by the US Gov’t. Most (some?) civilian units are programmed to conk out by then to prevent export headaches. GPS still works, the satellites will be far above you, but Geissbuhler should play stupid so as to avoid a visit from the dark suits. Also: foil hats, tres chic.

  11. Just like the many weather balloon launches before it, this has only reached the stratosphere, not space. A balloon is limited in its maximum altitude by atmospheric buoyancy, they cannot reach space. This isn’t slashdot or a daily newspaper, we don’t need sensationalist headlines.

  12. @Matt:

    You’re right – this isn’t spaceflight. 19km is certainly a neat science project for a kid and his dad, but space doesn’t start until you get up to 100km (the Kármán line). That’s ignoring the fact that the exosphere (part of the atmosphere) starts at 690km.

    Regardless of the semantic quibbles, this is a great story. Loved it!

  13. @Brad Hein
    but , it only needs to transmit data while its below 2000 feet in the air were you wil even get 4.5g (just for finding where it fell) and for altitude and such stuff , it not only does broadcast the coordinates but it also logs it as well , so other than burning the iPhone s battery because the phone is searching for signals when its above 4000 feet and the use of iphone above the earth’s atmosphere which will trigger a top secret sensor for voiding warranties , the system he uses is more than perfect

  14. That would be the coolest thing to do with my kid when he is aroud 9 years old! Your son will never forget this in his life…

    Way better than showing your kid your WOW stats to impress him.

  15. @marks256
    but , it only needs to transmit data while its below 2000 feet in the air were you wil even get 4.5g (just for finding where it fell) and for altitude and such stuff , it not only does broadcast the coordinates but it also logs it as well , so other than burning the iPhone’s battery because the phone is searching for signals when its above 4000 feet and the use of iphone above the earth’s atmosphere which triggers a top secret sensor for voiding warranties , the system he uses is more than perfect

  16. @marks256 you are wrong.
    Think about it. GPS is based on satillites in orbit so you would actually have a stronger signal up high.
    But GPSs used to be limited to under 60k ft “The limit of air space” or under 900 knts. These days I think they have changed the or to an and.
    As to cell phones. 60,000 is only 12 miles and it is straight up. You may get a cell signal there with no real problem if the tower is close enough. Cell signals tend to be limited by LOS and going up solves that problem. Of course signal strength could get to a problem if you are far enough from the tower.
    Oh and if you want a list of GPS’s that will work over 60k

  17. Great project. The reason that the handwarmers didn’t help much is that they produce heat by oxidizing their contents with atmospheric oxygen. Once it is high enough to need heat there is so little oxygen that the handwarmer would produce next to no heat. A couple of batteries dumping into nichrome wire would have been a good idea, especially if a 0C switch was included.

  18. Meh.

    This is “see spot run” science.

    They took a bunch of off the shelf components, cobbled them together, couldn’t be bothered doing a few simple tests or some simple math to figure out battery life or duration of their heating “system” etc. and got a bouncy, twirly video that stoped minutes before their “mission” did for their efforts.

    Good for them having the disposable income to risk a few hundred dollars worth of geek toys – but this is hardly “rocket science” in the making.

  19. @vonskippy
    wow, armchair father-son project critic. What have you done lately to give you the scientific or fatherly high-ground?

    Great work Luke, very inspiring to those of us looking at educational projects to do with with our children.

  20. While not actually in space, had that been a manned flight the pilot would have had to have had their astronauts wings to fly it. And having raw footage of a journey that high is cool regardless of how easy it is to obtain.

    But I do have to agree, overstating achievments (in general, not just the article title) irks me and detracts from the truely wonderful.

  21. Some students over at MIT already did this with their $150 space balloon project…with a Boost phone, beer cooler, and Canon camera running CHDK…..good details on their site – space.1337arts.com.

  22. Awesome project, but no altimeter?

    I think I would have tried to hack something in there, even if it’s just the iPhone’s camera on a regular meter taking pics occasionally.

    Still an incredible feat and some cajones risking your gear.
    I’d like to be the guy to take out his phone and say “let me tell you about where THIS litle baby was over the weekend…”

    Very cool.

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