Project Icarus: an eye in the sky for just $150

Paul Raven @ 14-09-2009

The popped Project Icarus balloon on its way back to EarthIf the $8000 TubeSat kits we mentioned last month are still to pricey for your pocketbook, never fear – you can still muck about on the edge of space, provided you can scrape up a few hundred bucks. A group of MIT students under the aegis of the Icarus Project have managed to take digital photographs from 17.5 miles above the surface of the Earth using nothing but off-the-shelf components… for a mere $150. [via Hack A Day]

The GPS receiver was a Motorola i290 “Boost Mobile” prepaid phone with internet and GPS capability (set up with Accutracking to constantly report its GPS location).

We bought a AA-battery cell phone charger to sustain the phone’s power over the duration of the flight, and we used Energizer lithium batteries (rated to operate at temperatures are low as -40F) to power both this charger as well as our camera.

As a further safeguard against electronic/battery failure due to low temperature, we utilitzed Coleman disposable hand warmers (placed near our electronics) to help keep our equipment warm in the cold of the stratosphere.

We loaded a Canon A470 camera (bought used on Amazon) with CHDK open source software to enable a feature which allowed the camera to take pictures continuously (intervalometer). Using this feature, we set the camera to take a picture every 5 seconds at a 1/800 second shutter speed. With an 8GB card, the camera was able to chronicle the whole journey of the balloon from launch to retrieval. (~5 hours)

OK, so it’s not exactly the most complex payload ever sent aloft, but it’s a clear demonstration that ingenuity gets things done… as is the example of Armadillo Aerospace, who’ve just taken the Level 2 prize of $1million for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge with their Scorpius vehicle.

And given that NASA has been warned that it needs to constrain its goals unless it can increase its budget, that’s good to know; I’m more convinced than ever that the next big steps in space will not be achieved by government agencies, though they may retain a political space on the game-board by commissioning more prize challenges.

Dead Institutions Beat: home-study degrees on a shoestring

Paul Raven @ 09-09-2009

Will the university be the next institution to fall to the onslaught of the internet? Probably not just yet, but the brick-and-mortar halls of learning are going to suffer badly against start-ups like StraighterLine, which offers online PhD-designed all-you-can-eat higher education courses… for just $99 a month. [via MetaFilter]

StraighterLine is the brainchild of a man named Burck Smith, an Internet entrepreneur bent on altering the DNA of higher education as we have known it for the better part of 500 years. Rather than students being tethered to ivy-covered quads or an anonymous commuter campus, Smith envisions a world where they can seamlessly assemble credits and degrees from multiple online providers, each specializing in certain subjects and—most importantly—fiercely competing on price. Smith himself may be the person who revolutionizes the university, or he may not be. But someone with the means and vision to fundamentally reorder the way students experience and pay for higher education is bound to emerge.

In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industries—automakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.

Here in the UK we have something called The Open University, which operates under a pretty similar distance-learning/subscription system… but not at that sort of bargain price-tag.

Decoupling quality higher education from temporal and financial restrictions is potentially a very disruptive technological step – not just for the US or other Western countries, but for the whole world. Those restrictions are what has traditionally deterred or prevented the less privileged from competing on qualifications in the employment marketplace, and outfits like StraighterLine could theoretically help reverse (or at least stabilise) the widening gap between the world’s rich and poor.

Of course, the prospect of even more people with degree-level qualifications might well devalue them even further, at least temporarily; the sheer number of courses here in the UK has left the job market saturated with unemployable graduates who have little to show for three years’ work (or partying) but a big chunk of debt. But if people who really want or need a practical or in-demand degree – and, more importantly, who are willing to work hard and quickly to get it – find themselves able to bypass the old institutions, I’m guessing we’ll see a lot less people going to college or university as a way of deferring the initial plunge into employment; free markets work in interesting ways.

Your own satellite aloft for $8,000

Paul Raven @ 03-08-2009

TubeSatIf SpaceX are out of your budget range, and you’re not willing to wait for laser propulsion to mature to commercially viable levels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were bang out of affordable options for launching your own satellite into orbit.

Not so – thanks to Interorbital Systems, you can buy a TubeSat 750-gram microsatellite and launch space for it on one of the company’s Neptune rockets… for just $8,000.

Since the TubeSats are placed into self-decaying orbits 310 kilometers (192 miles) above the Earth’s surface, they do not contribute to any long-term build-up of orbital debris. After a few weeks of operation, they will safely re-enter the atmosphere and burn-up. TubeSats are designed to be orbit-friendly.  Launches are expected to begin in the fourth quarter of 2010.


Each TubeSat kit includes the satellite’s structural components, safety hardware, solar panels, batteries, power management hardware and software,  transceiver, antennas, microcomputer, and the required programming tools. With these components alone, the builder can construct a satellite that puts out enough power to be picked up on the ground by a hand-held HAM radio receiver. Simple applications include broadcasting a repeating message from orbit or programming the satellite to function as a private orbital HAM radio relay station.

Sounds pretty limited in scope, doesn’t it? But then so do many generic technology platforms, right up until the point where hackers and other inventive types start testing their limits… and $8,000 isn’t a completely unreachable investment for a small clade of geeks with a big idea, or for an organisation with less savoury motives. If nothing else, we may see some sort of orbital-broadcast pirate radio revival… [via SlashDot; image courtesy Interorbital Systems]

‘The media’s deliberate stupidity’

Tom Marcinko @ 13-03-2009

beePresident Obama’s budget includes a mere $1.7 million, or 0.00041 percent of spending, for honeybee research. Jamison Foser notes that some politicians find that outrageous or hilarious, but that the debate — if you can call it that — over budget earmarks misses an an important point as far as bees are concerned:

Honeybees are pretty important. See, humans need food. Without it, we die. And bees not only produce honey, they pollinate all kinds of crops — onions, cashews, celery, strawberries, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, apples … you get the picture. Honeybees play an important role in our food supply, and our economy. And honeybees have been disappearing at an alarming rate in recent years, for reasons that are not fully known.

It might be useful to know why. And, while admitting that earmarks might not be the best way to fund research, it might also be useful if politicians would stop criticizing things they don’t understand just because they sound funny. Volcano monitoring, planetarium projectors, fruit-fly research, and studies of the DNA of  threatened species called grizzly bears all come to mind.

But if polticians can’t be bothered to understand, and behave like short-sighted anti-space senators in early Arthur C. Clarke, is it too much to ask that our media could be bothered to investigate claims and counterclaims, instead of chortling like Beavis and Butthead?

[Bee picture by Robert Seber]

Obama budgets for moonshot

Paul Raven @ 27-02-2009

Space Shuttle Endeavour launchingWell, at least one sector of the web is in a cheery mood at the moment – the space buffs are pretty stoked that President Obama’s budget includes a nice boost for NASA:

The budget calls on NASA to complete International Space Station construction, as well as continue its Earth science missions and aviation research. Yet it also remains fixed to former President George W. Bush’s plan to retire the space shuttle fleet by 2010 and replace them with the new Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, which would fly astronauts to the space station and return them to the moon by 2020.

Good news for extropians and forward-thinkers, then – though it’s almost surprising to see a spending increase on something that, by definition, doesn’t garner immediate tangible results at home. Perhaps Obama”s  gang are thinking that this is the ideal time to sneak by a budget increase that might otherwise cause much angst and wailing; US$19billion may sound like a lot, but it’s a tiny fragment of that bailout package… [image by jurvetson]

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