Sunday, September 23, 2012

14-year-old gets photos from space

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A Lego man encased in a homemade weather balloon ended his journey to the edge of space on a New Hampshire driveway, bringing with him a trove of atmospheric data as well as stunning images of the curvature of the Earth.

The balloon, which landed on August 25, is the brainchild of a 14-year-old student named Jack Miron from Bedford, New Hampshire.

He didn’t know that NASA is using this technology for telescope research and studying the atmospheres of Mars, Venus and beyond.

His sights were set instead on an eighth-grade science project.

How Jack Did It

Jack was inspired when he looked out an airplane window when flying to Canada two years ago. “I’ve always wondered how airplanes could fly,” he said. “It was amazing looking at the world from above.”

The hazards and technical difficulties of traveling far into the atmosphere did not hold him back.

In a single week, young Jack built the weather balloon with the payload carrying his beloved Lego man equipped with weather measuring devices.

Jack - who also enjoys playing Dungeons & Dragons, fencing and reading - spent four weeks studying every challenge that might come his way.

In order to reach optimum height, Jack measured the balloon’s helium density in relation to its thickness to balance the payload’s weight.

“I never do anything simple,” he told CNN.

He also found that the upper atmosphere can drop to a deathly chill of minus-67 degrees Fahrenheit, so he got the idea of putting hand warmers next to the camera to keep the liquid in the batteries warm.

Launching into the stratosphere though was the least of Jack’s worries.

“The biggest problem I found was that the jet stream would carry my balloon straight into the Atlantic Ocean,” he said.

The science fair is not until November, but Jack’s research led him to launch August 25. In the summer, the jet stream weakens and rides up north, says David Robinson of Columbia University, who specializes in atmospheric sciences.

Only someone very clever who studied a lot could calculate the right conditions to send a balloon this high while avoiding a theft by the jet stream, Robinson said.

Also, to get through the troposphere, the lowest part of the Earth's atmosphere, the balloon had to survive the risk of extreme weather changes.

But the troposphere was no match for Jack’s weather balloon. It also passed the ozone layer to a dizzying height of 110,000 feet, into the stratosphere.

“Its not normal for national weather service balloons to get this high,” Robinson said.

When the balloon finally exploded from the barometric drop, a parachute ensured a successful mission.

To capture the images of space, Jack used a GoPro camera programmed to take snap shots every 10 seconds. That camera recorded more than 1,000 photographs during its ascent and descent, recording dizzying images of the sun’s rays coming over the curvature of the Earth.

Jack may be reaching heights of scientific research of which he wasn’t even aware.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, published a paper discussing the possibility of using high-altitude balloons for launching rockets to Mars, Venus and beyond. The balloons would be tethered from the launch site to ensure control in the turbulent troposphere. Then, once the balloon was in the stratosphere an attached rocket would be dropped into a six-second free fall, then fire its engines.

Danny Ball, the Site Manager of the Columbia Scientific Balloon facility supporting NASA, says the first rocket launch from a balloon is scheduled for 2014. NASA has conducted test balloon launches from 62 sites around the world, including Antarctica, where the troposphere is thinnest.

Scientists have confirmed that it is possible to launch a rocket from 110,000 feet. High-altitude balloons are also being used to simulate the low-density atmosphere of other planets, primarily Mars and Venus, and Saturn's largest moon, Titan, in anticipation of future missions to send humans to other worlds. Wallop's Flight Facility conducts about 10 to 20 balloon flights a year , according to Debbie Fairbrother, chief of NASA's Balloon Program. In Sweden last month, the facility launched a test flight of an 18.8 million-cubic-foot Super Pressure Balloon. It is pressurized for a flight of up to several weeks.

A stroke of good luck, and a few surprises

Armed with binoculars from the front seat of his mom’s minivan, Jack used an iPad and a laptop to track the his balloon’s location in real time. A scribbled sign on the dashboard proudly designated the minivan as “Mission Control.”

“What a launch! It was awesome! It took off like a banshee!” exclaimed a jubilant Jack, remembering that day. Jack knew the dangers of the turbulent troposphere and had attached a GPS device, a beeper and a note for rescue purposes in case a storm blew the balloon away. However, to Jack’s dismay the GPS “conked out” as the balloon neared the edge of space.

“It’s not normal for even a national weather service balloon to get this high,” said Mark Miller, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Rutgers University.

When the balloon finally descended to Earth after its two-hour journey, a New Hampshire resident discovered it sprawled across his driveway with all its gadgets.

“I called the police because I didn’t know what it was,” Sean Tolland said, laughing. A thrilled Jack rushed to the scene with his mother. “I was so excited and overjoyed to have it back - I thought it was gone. I was ecstatic,” he said.

What he had yet to discover was the vast panoramas captured by the small camera on board.

“I am going to do more research with drawings and writings," he said. "I love to learn."

Jesse Craft, a NASA Space Flight Design and Analysis Engineer, was impressed by Jack’s advanced innovations in design at such a young age. “He has a mind for detail recognizing potential problems and needs before the launch. He has the mind of an engineer!”

It’s important we inspire kids in the fields of science and math engineering. It’s the engine of the economy, Craft said.

“Humans are designed to be explorers, to be curious. If we’ve given up on that we’ve given up on a part of ourselves," he said.

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