Story on FOX, CNN, and ABC

Join our Facebook Group!

Our other websites


phonesetupWe designed a low cost balloon-launch platform that did not require the use of expensive equipment such as radio modems (the total cost of our device did not exceed 150 dollars) or complicated hardware hacking (all of the components of our device were common electronics available off-the-shelf in stores).

The GPS receiver was a Motorola i290 “Boost Mobile” prepaid phone with internet and GPS capability (set up with Accutracking to constantly report its GPS location).

We bought a AA-battery cell phone charger to sustain the phone’s power over the duration of the flight, and we used Energizer lithium batteries (rated to operate at temperatures are low as -40F) to power both this charger as well as our camera.

As a further safeguard against electronic/battery failure due to low temperature, we utilitzed Coleman disposable hand warmers (placed near our electronics) to help keep our equipment warm in the cold of the stratosphere.

We loaded a Canon A470 camera (bought used on Amazon) with CHDK open source software to enable a feature which allowed the camera to take pictures continuously (intervalometer). Using this feature, we set the camera to take a picture every 5 seconds at a 1/800 second shutter speed. With an 8GB card, the camera was able to chronicle the whole journey of the balloon from launch to retrieval. (~5 hours)

Equipment Used in the Launch Capsule
Sounding Balloon 350g from Kaymont350g~$20 +$20 (helium)
Motorola i290 Prepaid Cellphone~90g,~$50**
Styrofoam Beer Cooler~15g~$0
Duct Tape~10g~$0
Zip Ties~5g~$0
Canon A470 with 8GB SD card~165g,~$40***
Insulation material- newspaper~5g~$0
Duracell USB phone charger powered by AA batteries~20g 1oz~$10
Instant Hand warmer~5g~$2****
4 Ultimate Lithium AA batteries~15g * 4 = 60 g~$5
Radar Reflector (aluminum foil)~0g~$0
Total~800g, /w misc.~$150

* Two things:
(1) We had one of these laying around, so we’re actually a little unclear about how much it would cost to get a plastic parachute  with strings, but we can’t imagine it would be that much. However, we actually created a second launch vehicle using a trash bag as a parachute, so that is one way people could probably cut costs.
(2) It may not even be necessary to attach a parachute. For instance, I think that a large number of streamers dangling off the back of the box might provide enough drag to slow it down to a comparable landing speed.

** Some people have told us (and we have confirmed after some searching online) that the cost of the cell phone (usable for a similar launch) can actually go as low as $30. We paid $50 for ours though.

*** This was a lucky grab for us. One can do the same with a 4GB SD card with picture intervals of 10s each, and that will save you about $10. You can find cheap cameras on ebay or Amazon (used). You probably want to send a used one up anyways, considering the harsh conditions it will be subject to.

**** A packet of 6 handwarmers can be bought for ~$5 from Target. We used two handwarmers for our launch, one pressed against the camera and one pressed against the cell phone.

***** Many people have asked about the antenna in our pictures. It was an extra part from a used wireless router. However, i don’t actually think it’s necessary to have one (and in our second vehicle, we actually didn’t add the antenna.) As long as the cell phone can report its location after landing, one should be okay.

255 comments to Hardware

  • jajabor

    Absolutely brilliant. Thanks for sharing. Hope you keep pushing the envelope.

  • r. mcgill

    let me know when you can launch a payload of 200+ lbs, I’m already packed and ready to go.

  • Carls

    Congrats! awesome, greetings from mexico

  • Chris

    Guys, this is amazing. I picked this up from slashdot, so becareful: you might exceed your bandwidth limits soon!!

    Anyway, way to be inventive! You’re making gadget-lovers everywhere proud!

  • Brett_cgb

    One of the reasons cell phone use is discouraged in aircraft is that they generally access multiple cell towers at one time (normally, just a few towers are reachable from the surface rather than dozens or hundreds). This causes difficulties within the cell phone network with respect to “which tower is closest”. Since many towers are accessable at once, all such towers must dedicate the same channel to one phone across large areas.

    However, if position updates are sent as text messages, and not too frequently (say once every 5 minutes or so), you should get adequate tracking data without messing with the cell phone network too much.

    Cell phone “GPS” features likely do not actually use GPS for position determination, but try to locate a cell phone based on rough direction from cell towers (strongest 45 degree sector), phone signal strength or signal delays between cell towers, with the assumption that the phone is located on or very near the surface (i.e. in a tall building).

    The impact on cell phone networks is significant, and is why radio modems and such are frequently used for downlinks.

    I very much like the idea of “balloons to the edge of space”, but the downlink issue causes me a bit of discomfort.

    I’d like to suggest that you find an amateur radio operator in your area for help, likely one that has experience with APRS. They WILL have the expertise and local knowledge to implement a reliable, low impact downlink, likely with ideas for small/light/low cost GPS receivers.

    • Carson

      Actually, new cell phones have GPS and track using it instead of the cell networks. If you look at the Google Earth KML data they provided, they didn’t get cell reception until the end of the voyage because of their height. They say the same thing during their conclusion.

  • Phil Smith

    Somehow I don’t think a single cell phone is going to cause any great difficulty to the cell phone network, regardless of the altitude. If it does, the the cell network in in serious trouble. Think how easy it would be to crash the cell network if a few cheap phones and helium balloons could do it?

    Good thing these guys aren’t such worry warts. Otherwise, this incredible feat of thinking would never have happened. CONGRATULATIONS guys, what you did is truly astonishing considering that if you had asked a NASA engineer to do the same thing, the price tag would have come in to the millions of dollars.

  • Henk Poley

    The problem isn’t in crashing celltower software. Blocking one of the ~8 GSM frequencies over a very large area is. Then this frequency is divided in time-slots, so the problem is somewhat mitigated. But having say, a hundred phones in the air would give serious problems.

  • Doug

    Brett_cgb — I’m an amateur radio operator, and I’m familiar with APRS. It would be very difficult to get an APRS setup going for the same price and similar weight as a cell phone.

    As for the reasons cell phones are discouraged in airplanes, I think you’re just repeating an urban legend. The real reason cell phones are discouraged in planes is that people are worried they’ll mess up something in the plane (for a big plane with lots of passengers) or the pilot shouldn’t be yacking on the phone (for a small plane.)

  • paul

    I’m not worried about the cell phone network but I hope there was some FAA coordination about launching the balloon itself, to make sure aircraft don’t run into it. I also notice the weight list is slightly odd–the beer cooler and the instant hand warmer probably weigh more than zero grams!!!

  • Kevin

    Have you taken the full set of pictures and stitched them together into a movie? It’d be an interesting animation to watch – if you played all the frames back at normal video speed (30fps), you’d be looking at about a 2 minute animation (assuming a 5 hour time frame at 1 frame every 5 seconds).

    If you want to do this but need help, just ask!

    Another thought – there’s no need to send added weight of casings into space… to shave a few grams, you can disassemble most of the electronics and get rid of the cases… depending on the device construction of course.


  • Jon

    Wow! I really want to make one of these. You should make a tutorial on how to set this up. I could see people lunching video cameras, and posting the video on youtube in the near future. *Hamsters everywhere cringe*

  • pete.d

    As for the reasons cell phones are discouraged in airplanes, I think you’re just repeating an urban legend. The real reason cell phones are discouraged in planes is that people are worried they’ll mess up something in the plane (for a big plane with lots of passengers) or the pilot shouldn’t be yacking on the phone (for a small plane.)

    Actually, it’s not urban legend. FCC regulations prohibit use of certain types of analog phones from airplanes, specifically due to tower interference.

    Most cellphones in use aren’t subject to that regulation, hence the misunderstanding about what the regulations actually are. But the source of the idea is from FCC regulations, not air safety issues.

    There is also the question of air safety, which the FAA has a catch-all regulation for. No electronic device may be used in any aircraft unless the operator of the aircraft has determined that the device is safe (there are also specific prohibitions, including of all things electric razors). For better or worse, in commercial aviation this gets translated in practice to shutting off electronic devices during departure and approach when electronic interference presents the greatest hazard (i.e. the aircraft is near the hard stuff). But cell phones are not specifically targeted by FAA regulations.

    Commercial aviation operates under more specific, more detailed rules than non-commercial but the underlying philosophy is the same for both: avoid interference with aircraft systems. The question of whether the pilot should or shouldn’t be “yakking on the phone” doesn’t come into it (and if it did, it would apply to commercial air-transport aviation, not non-commercial light planes, as that’s where the FAA is much more willing to micro-manage pilot behavior).

    As far as the legality of this particular balloon operation goes, FAR Part 101 applies (“…the operation of unmanned free balloons”) and includes (among other things) requirements regarding payload attachment (two independent “cut-down systems”), flight control (two methods for terminating the balloon’s flight), weather conditions (sky conditions scattered clouds or better, at least 5 miles visibility), time of day (daytime only unless additional equipment is attached for lighting), notice (to the FAA within 6 to 24 hours preceding launch, with an eight-point list of required information), and position reports (every two hours to air traffic control, one-hour notice to ATC before beginning descent including information about projected flight path, and notification of the end of flight).

    Details on this web site are minimal, but I didn’t see any mention whatsoever of observing any of the applicable FAA regulations.

  • [...] of Earth from Space on $150 Budget – Are You Listening, NASA? Awesome – this story is about 2 MIT students who accomplished the feat with off-the-shelf components. Posted: Sunday, September 13, 2009 5:32 [...]

  • [...] September 13, 2009 in Technlogy, photo Project Icarus is a damn interesting approach to high altitude [...]

  • I don’t want to take the wind out of anyone’s sails, but wasn’t this done by a couple of poor kids in Mexico about 6 months ago? Please see the link below:

    The Wiz

  • JohnL

    In response to Wizard of IB,

    The article was actually referring to high school kids in spain. Catalonia is in Spain. Also reading the article it seems like they did not include the cost of the GPS/Radio equipment which typically composes the majority of the cost of launches like these.

  • Hendra

    Wow guys congratulations, very inspiring. I hope I can do it someday, not as high, using a kite maybe.

  • Doug

    Ultimately, you know what general aviation pilots do when their radio or electrical system is down and they need to call the airport tower for some reason (like to land) nowadays? They call them on their cell phones.

  • Can you please create a video of all of the pictures strung together? It might be quite cool to see…

  • [...] Here's one for you budding photo nutters. How to take *really* high altitude photos for cheap Hardware 1337arts __________________ —————————————– :: Trial by [...]

Leave a Reply to Kevin




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>