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.

High-altitude urban windpower: not just blue-sky thinking

Paul Raven @ 17-06-2009

Energy sources don’t come much cleaner than wind power, but there’s no way of deploying it in large urban areas, right? Well, not so; if you can get the turbines away from ground level, you not only avoid the problem of siting all those windmills but also get access to the much richer store of power that exists at higher altitudes.

The first rigorous, worldwide study of high-altitude wind power estimates that there is enough wind energy at altitudes of about 1,600 to 40,000 feet to meet global electricity demand a hundred times over.

The very best ground-based wind sites have a wind-power density of less than 1 kilowatt per square meter of area swept. Up near the jet stream above New York, the wind power density can reach 16 kilowatts per square meter. The air up there is a vast potential reservoir of energy, if its intermittency can be overcome.

Even better, the best high-altitude wind-power resources match up with highly populated areas including North America’s Eastern Seaboard and China’s coastline.

“The resource is really, really phenomenal,” said Cristina Archer of Cal State University-Chico, who co-authored a paper on the work published in the open-access journal Energies.”There is a lot of energy up there, but it’s not as steady as we thought. It’s not going to be the silver bullet that will solve all of our energy problems, but it will have a role.”

According to that article, there’s a handful of start-ups beavering away at making workable prototypes to take advantage of all that wind and promising their first sales in a year or so. It’ll be good to have another non-vaporware option on the renewable energy table, but I imagine any city that has a lot of aircraft traffic passing through isn’t going to be too keen on the idea…