Man VsT ech

T3 - - Contents - pho­tog­ra­phy Olly Cur­tis words Steve Jar­ratt

This is­sue, we send T3 into space! Yes, you’d bet­ter believe it. And lucky for us it didn’t end up in a Grav­ity- style dis­as­ter, so you get to read all about it.

This is­sue’s Man vs Tech is a bit of a two-header. First, we want to see how easy it is to send an is­sue of T3 into space – and while we were at it, we fig­ured we might as well put some ac­tion cam­eras through their paces. So it was one small step to the car, fol­lowed by one long-ass drive to my launch cen­tre in Sh­effield…

Find­ing the equip­ment to ful­fil my brief was way eas­ier than an­tic­i­pated. Googling ‘send­ing stuff into space’ quickly re­vealed Sent Into Space, a com­pany started by two stu­dents from Sh­effield Univer­sity. In 2010 Alex Baker and Chris Rose sent a bal­loon up to the mid-strato­sphere to film the Earth from near space. De­spite us­ing only bits of kit sal­vaged from the uni’s parts bin and work­ing on a shoe­string bud­get, it was a huge suc­cess and gave them the idea to kick­start the com­pany.

To­day I’m work­ing with Alex Keen and Daniel Blaney, who are go­ing to help with the launch and pro­vide some much­needed ad­vice along the way. How­ever, for all in­tents and pur­poses, the bal­loon launch we’re do­ing to­day could be done by any T3 reader at home, with just a small bud­get, some know-how and bits of gear: mo­bile phone, lap­top, car… that kind of thing.

The process of send­ing stuff into space is rel­a­tively straight­for­ward: the items are stored in a poly­styrene con­tainer, which is light, helps pro­tect against the -60°C tem­per­a­tures, and also ab­sorbs some of the im­pact if the land­ing doesn’t go smoothly. On board there are two GPS track­ing sys­tems – a SPOT Trace and, for to­day’s flight, a be­spoke ra­dio sys­tem op­er­ated us­ing a mod­i­fied Rasp­berry Pi. How­ever, SIS of­fers both the SPOT satel­lite lo­ca­tor (£84 plus sub­scrip­tion) and an SMS tracker, the SpyTec GL300 (£35), which can be used with any smart­phone and is ac­cu­rate to within five me­tres. Ide­ally, you’d use a com­bi­na­tion of the two: the SPOT Trace, which op­er­ates up to an al­ti­tude of 15km, to track the flight path, and then the SMS de­vice to lo­cate it when it’s on the ground – although you could fea­si­bly get away with just the lat­ter.

pack­ing for the trip

Hav­ing been shown the kit, we load ev­ery­thing – pay­load, gas can­is­ters, lap­tops, etc – into the Mit­subishi War­rior and set off for the park. Our poly­styrene box full of kit – or ‘pay­load’, which sounds much more pro­fes­sional – is teth­ered to a large, la­tex bal­loon filled with a lighterthan-air gas. We’re us­ing hy­dro­gen, but the SIS team rec­om­mend helium, due to hy­dro­gen’s en­thu­si­asm for blow­ing up. A 20-litre can­is­ter of He will set you back around £220. The flight ends when the bal­loon pops due to the lack of ex­ter­nal pres­sure at high al­ti­tudes, and then the pay­load para­chutes back to the ground.

Bal­loons come in var­i­ous weights, ca­pa­ble of lift­ing heav­ier pay­loads or reach­ing higher al­ti­tudes (up to 40km), and rang­ing in price from around £65 up to £285. How­ever, it’s not just a case of pump­ing the thing full of gas and let­ting go: too much and it’ll climb quickly but burst at a lower al­ti­tude, too lit­tle and it’ll take for­ever to reach the point at which it rup­tures, by which time it could be hun­dreds of miles away…

SIS has an on­line ‘burst cal­cu­la­tor’ which you can use to de­ter­mine the launch vol­ume you’ll need to achieve a cer­tain as­cent speed and al­ti­tude. In the field this is done by at­tain­ing neu­tral buoy­ancy us­ing a set bal­last – in our case a 2.7kg con­tainer of wa­ter. When the right amount of gas has been put into the bal­loon, and the pay­load is se­cure, it’s time for lift-off.

With all the gear on board, in­clud­ing the Kaiser Baas X4 and GoPro HERO5 Black ac­tion cam­eras (we thought it was bet­ter to send two in case one didn’t work), Alex and Dan gen­tly feed the bal­loon out un­til I’m left hold­ing just the pay­load. With one had I gen­tly lift it up and set it on its jour­ney. Next stop… space.

Ac­tu­ally, our next stop is a quick pub lunch along the flight path (there’s a bunch of use­ful on­line tools you can use to pre­dict your bal­loon’s likely tra­jec­tory, such as pre­dict.hab­hub.org). It takes a cou­ple of hours for the bal­loon to as­cend and then an hour or so to fall back to Earth – tar­get as­cent and de­scent rates are 5m/s or 11.3mph and 6m/s or 13.4mph – so we head for the land­ing zone af­ter a food break.

StarMag

45 min­utes later and, look­ing like a scene from Twis­ter, we’re bar­relling along in a con­voy, Alex at the wheel, Dan on the lap­top mon­i­tor­ing the track­ing data, and me and the pho­tog­ra­pher, Olly, in hot pur­suit. We pull up along some golden wheat fields glow­ing in the af­ter­noon sun, which feels like the ab­so­lute per­fect lo­ca­tion to re­cover our pay­load. But the data tells us we’ve over­shot and need to dou­ble back to the Lincoln Golf Club.

We park up and, switch­ing to the SMS sys­tem, Alex gets a fix on his phone – it’s just through some trees and on the 16th hole. “It should be over there,” he points into the dis­tance… but there’s no sign of the lu­mi­nous orange ’chute. Just per­fectly man­i­cured grass. Damn.

Think­ing that the Rasp­berry Pi has thrown a paddy, they call back to base to get an up­date on the pay­load’s lo­ca­tion. But we’re in the right place – which can only mean that our pre­cious space cargo has al­ready been hi­jacked by some­one. We ask two golfers up ahead who point us in the di­rec­tion of the 18th hole and, sure enough, there’s our box and para­chute stick­ing out of a golf trol­ley. It’s in­tact and both of the cam­eras are still op­er­at­ing – de­spite the length of the trip and the ex­po­sure to up­per at­mo­sphere con­di­tions!

We thank the club mem­bers for their, uh, ‘help’ and head back to the cars, where the cam­era footage (which is stored on 128GB mi­croSD cards) is down­loaded onto the lap­top. And… suc­cess! There we have it, one travel edi­tion of T3 drift­ing lazily against the epic panorama of planet Earth. To Alex and Dan, this is just an­other day at the of­fice, but for me, I just sent some­thing into space (what? I was the last one to touch it so I’m claim­ing it).

Both cam­eras ac­quit­ted them­selves ad­mirably, shoot­ing for the en­tire du­ra­tion of the flight and, more im­por­tantly, sur­viv­ing the ex­tremes of tem­per­a­ture and al­ti­tude. The footage from both is gor­geous; it may only be 1080p res­o­lu­tion (it re­quires two bat­tery packs to shoot 4K, which re­duces max­i­mum height and can cause the cam­eras to over­heat), but it looks amaz­ing. And no won­der: the track­ing data tells us that it was shot at an al­ti­tude of 37.8km – or 24.1 miles up; just shy of the height of Felix Baum­gart­ner’s record-break­ing freefall.

It can only mean one thing: our pre­cious space cargo has been hi­jacked…

The mis­sion Can the lat­est ac­tion cam­eras stand the ul­ti­mate test: shoot­ing video in the freez­ing, air­less en­vi­ron­ment 38km above the Earth? The man Child of the space-aged ’60s and sci-fi space nut, for­mer ed­i­tor Steve had the right stuff for the job

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