Students Image Earth On the Cheap

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Two students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently launched a digital camera into the stratosphere on a helium balloon, capturing stunning views of Earth from up high.

The feat is impressive not just for the images, but for its budget — the entire project cost the students only $150.

Oliver Yeh, an MIT senior studying computer science and electrical engineering, and Justin Lee, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, lofted the camera Sept. 2 from Sturbridge, Mass. By tracking its location through the GPS readout of a cheap cell phone they launched along with it, the students were able to retrieve the package after it landed in Worcester about 32 kilometers away.

The resulting pictures reveal the blue glow of Earth with the bright glare of the sun’s reflection, contrasting against the blackness of space. Yeh’s favorite shot is a frame showing the curve of the Earth, with the shapes of Long Island and Connecticut visible.

“Our pictures turned out great,” Yeh said in an interview. “We saw some pictures from other launches by other people online, so we kind of knew what to expect. But these pictures are unique because everyone launches form different locations.”

The MIT students are not the first to undertake a near-space photography mission, but they appear to have done it for much cheaper than any previous project, and without any of the professional aerospace equipment and instruments often used.

Yeh and Lee bought the camera online — a used Canon A470 for about $40, and programmed it to take a picture every five seconds. They loaded it into a cooler along with a Motorola i290 prepaid cell phone, which they programmed to constantly report its GPS location via text message.

Indeed, the parts and even the expertise needed are so commonplace, the students insist, that anyone can carry out a similar experiment — one need not be a rocket scientist, or even an MIT student.

“All the parts we bought were off the shelf,” Yeh said. “The programs we installed were just standard — as easy as installing MS Word onto your computer.”