Man VsT ech
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.
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…
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