Olson’s Observations

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The Far Horizons Project: Part I

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For those that don’t know I will now confess that I am a space geek and that I also spend some time volunteering at the Adler Planetarium here in Chicago teaching both kids and adults about space and the cosmos.  I recently started to get involved in a project going on at the Adler that I find very exciting.  The project is called Far Horizons and the goal of the project is to encourage amateur space exploration and we plan to do so through high altitude ballooning missions and, eventually, through the design and launch of earth-orbiting micro-satellites.

The long term vision of Far Horizons is to create a community, centered around the Adler, that will design, build and operate space missions.  It will be like our own mini NASA.

A few years ago the founders of Far Horizons heard about a group of people building things called “CubeSats”. CubeSats are extremely small (4 inches per side cubes) satellites built to certain specs.  The cost to build a CubeSat is pretty cheap and the launch costs (via secondary payload in a private launch) are about $40,000.  Not cheap by any means but still relatively inexpensive compared to a traditional satellite launch with costs on the order of $40,000,000.

What the founders realized was that CubeSats were an ideal opportunity to bring space exploration to the public.  Until now space exploration has been the province of large corporations or governments and has not involved the general public. CubeSats meant that individuals or clubs could now participate in space exploration directly.  Knowing this they started work on Far Horizons.

That said, the founders realized they needed to start modestly and that lead them to high altitude ballooning.  High altitude ballooning is a great test bed for components that will eventually end up in the satellites. Many of the challenges faced with high altitude ballooning are similar to those that will be encountered in future satellite missions; a tight power budget, weight restrictions, very low pressures (the balloon flights go high enough that the pressure is <1% of sea level), low temperatures (down to -60 degrees), high radiation, the need to use radio communications, etc.  Also, with ballooning new designs are more easily able to be tested.  A complete mission only costs a few hundred dollars (including gas for the chase vans) and a few days to a few weeks for the equipment building.  Not bad right?  On top of all the benefits I just listed ballooning is much more accessible to high school students, which is one of the programs and the Adler’s main audiences.

So, as I mentioned I recently joined this project and I am very excited about it.  I participated in my first balloon launch last weekend and we hit about 114,000 feet at the peak (click here for pictures) which is above 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere.  At this height the horizon is about 400 miles away.  You can actually see the blackness of space above and the curvature of the earth below. The images are fantastic.

In the mission this past weekend we had HD cameras as the payload.  I hope to get some of the video together soon and post it here. Here is a picture of the path of our balloon from last weekend.

The amount of technology involved is more than one might think and is pretty interesting. For example, each balloon has a GPS receiver and a radio transmitter on board.  The GPS signals are translated to what are essentially a set of modem tones and those tones are then transmitted in a form of packet radio called APRS.  The chase van is equipped with a receiver that grabs the packets, translates the tones back into data and then feeds them to a computer in the van.  A plot point is then created on a map (including the height, speed and bearing of the balloon) on the laptop along with a GPS data point for the current location of the chase van.  That is fairly basic but things will only get more interesting on that front as well as we move to developing satellites.

Speaking of tech, we really need a solid programmer (or two) on the team to help with our tracking software and some other items.  We will probably do this work in C but we’re flexible. If you are interested in joining the team please shoot me a note.  Also, if you are an engineer or are just generally interested in helping out please send an email my way.

I will post further udpates over the months/years as we move this project forward.  I am excited to be working on this from a pure scientific standpoint but also because this has the potential to be an incredible learning took for both children and adults.  Again, I will keep you all posted on the progress of all of this.  It should be a blast to democratize space exploration.

Written by Eric Olson

October 10th, 2008 at 7:06 pm