March 26, 2010 -- A typical space shuttle mission flies 200 miles above the earth's surface and returns beautiful pictures on the way, but it involves 1,500 people, puts six or seven astronauts at risk and costs, depending on who's doing the counting, close to half a billion dollars.
Robert Harrison got some pretty good pictures too. He did it with a weather balloon, a used digital camera he picked up on eBay and some duct tape.
"I thought I was going to get some nice pictures," said Harrison, a computer engineer from the British town of Highburton, West Yorkshire, "but I didn't realize I'd see the curvature of the earth, the blue band of the atmosphere and the blackness of space."
His camera rises to altitudes of about 20 miles over the English countryside. The price per flight: about $750.
Harrison began his hobby two years ago, figuring it might be fun to get pictures of his house from above. The project has, er, ballooned since then.
He has tried it 20 times since 2008. He named his project Icarus, after the young man in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun.
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Harrison is quick to say that what he's doing is not nearly as complex as what NASA does ("NASA's done a phenomenal amount of work."), and he is, to borrow Isaac Newton's phrase, standing on the shoulders of giants. He buys weather balloons from a supplier in the United States; pictures from balloon-borne cameras long pre-date the space program. He uses an off-the-shelf GPS locator, which gets signals from U.S. satellites, so he can track the balloon on Google maps. He bought a Canon pocket digital camera (a model discontinued in 2008) and attached a circuit board so that it would take pictures every five minutes.
The results you see. The camera shoots randomly, turning in the wind. Some of the images are ruined by sunlight; others are quite striking.
The balloon rises, carried randomly by the wind, until it bursts. The camera then parachutes to the ground in its housing. Harrison put his phone number and a printed label on the outside: "Harmless Scientific Experiment."
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Twenty miles high, the air is far too thin to breathe, and the helium balloon expands from a diameter of about three feet to more than 50. Harrison said he built a small housing for the camera with attic insulation to protect it from the high-altitude temperatures of 75 degrees below zero.
How far does the wind carry it? "That depends on the jet stream," he said. "On a good day, 10 to 12 miles. On a bad day, 50 miles."
He chases it by car with a GPS tracker on his dashboard.
No, he has not been reported for launching UFOs, although he does have to get clearance from British air traffic authorities so his balloons will not interfere with any nearby airplanes. He worries that one day the camera will plop down in the North Sea or the English Channel, but so far it has tended to land in farmers' fields.
"The one thing that's quite scary is how thin that blue line of the atmosphere is," he said in a telephone interview. "This is almost a religious thing to say, but this is the only place we know of with air and life. There's not that much air up there. And we all share it."
Of course, every flight ends with an ignominious search for the camera but, Harrison said, he was "gobsmacked" by the pictures it has brought back.
"I know now for a fact," he joked, "that the earth is round."