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Space On a Shoestring 257

Posted by kdawson
from the hey-gang-let's-build-a-rocketship dept.
An anonymous reader writes, "Three engineering students from Cambridge University plan to send an unmanned craft into space for £1,000 ($1,880) and have just sent a test mission up 32 km for a lot less. Their snaps from the upper atmosphere are impressive, and were taken by a balloon equipped with off-the-shelf technology including GSM text messaging, radio communications, and an ordinary 5-megapixel camera. They now plan to use a similar craft as a launching stage to get a cheap rocket into space." There's also a video of the balloon launch.
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Space On a Shoestring

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  • Moo (Score:5, Funny)

    by Chacham (981) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @12:22AM (#16143707) Homepage Journal
    Picture this, soon their balooning costs will skyrocket to reach even greater heights.
    • Re:Moo (Score:4, Funny)

      by gfody (514448) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @01:57AM (#16144042)
      that direct link to a 56mb file (for 17 seconds of footage!) will be the most expensive part of the project
      • Aww come on guys who put that link up? It was just a little unedited footage for the BBC. Now you've gone and broken one of the servers. Go look at the pictures instead, they're better than the video.
        • by Instine (963303)
          Re the pictures. I like the message on the side of the electronics. "Harmless Scientific experiment...".

          You can just see the kind of flap someone in Cambridge could get in if the found a small box with a battery and a bunch of wires hanging out, on the roof of their car in the morning. Tee hee
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by another_henry (570767)
            Exactly. Apparently if the Bomb Squad etc find a mysterious object with a phone number on it they will always call the phone number before blowing it up.
            • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

              by Anonymous Coward
              A bit of a bugger if the number in question triggers the detonator.
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by AKAImBatman (238306) *
            I like the message on the side of the electronics. "Harmless Scientific experiment...".

            Which, after years of research into improving the message, has been changed to "Mostly Harmless Scientific experiment...".
  • Very cool hobby... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Cherita Chen (936355) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @12:22AM (#16143712) Homepage
    High altitude balooning is a very cool hobby to get involved in... Two very informative links on the subject are included below.

    http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/Numbers/Math/Math ematical_Thinking/designing_a_high_altitude.htm [nasa.gov]

    http://www.amsat.org/amsat/balloons/balloon.htm [amsat.org]

    • by gkhan1 (886823) <oskarsigvardsson@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @01:46AM (#16144010)
      What kind of permissions from the local flight authority does it require? Aren't they hard enough to get to prohibit hobbyist involvement?
      • Ballons probably don't need the same sort of clearance. Many weather ballons are launched from weather stations which are often located at airports. I used to work for a company building weather ballon tracking equipment and we'd go test our prototype kit at the baloon launch site which was right next to the end of an international airport runway (right in the high security area next to where you see the planes land with puffs of smoke coming off their tyres). At least twice I can recall flying along at alt
      • by another_henry (570767) <slashdot@henryha ... inus threevowels> on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @05:31AM (#16144533) Homepage
        The CAA were very good about it actually... didn't give us any trouble at all. I think you have to apply at least a month in advance for permission to launch a balloon that will enter controlled airspace (which covers the entire UK from 24500ft up) and they will give you an "exemption" for a certain launch site for a certain period (couple of months). They issue a NOTAM to warn pilots. Then you have to notify the local air traffic control facility 24 hours and then 5 minutes in advance.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Rorschach1 (174480)
      See also ARHAB [arhab.org] for more on amateur radio high altitude ballooning. I have yet to put together a full payload myself, but I've provided electronics for quite a few of these.
  • by ubersonic (943362) * on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @12:23AM (#16143715) Homepage Journal
    So GSM phones do work at that height?

    Why do we need inflight GSM mini stations then?
    • by leereyno (32197) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @12:38AM (#16143781) Homepage Journal
      Consumers don't NEED them at all. They're there so the airlines can make a buck.

      Anyone familiar with the story of flight 93 knows that cell phones work at the cruising altitude of commericial jet aircraft.

      Lee

      • by cloricus (691063) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @01:20AM (#16143939)
        Having made several flights lately in light aircraft I've been rather bored and have happily sat watching the bars on my mobile phone...Now I didn't realise there was a full on tin foil hat issue here though my results are as follows:

        Outbound from where I live on a Nokia 6230 I had signal for a decent phone call up to ~5,000 feet and could send SMS to around ~6,000 feet, soon after this I lost signal. Leaving on the way back to here I had phone signal for a call up to ~7,000 feet and lost phone and SMS at about the same time.

        The Blackberry 7230 I had with me made it another 500-1000 feet over my Nokia in regards to signal though GPRS didn't fare so well. Luckily Brick doesn't require phone signal. :)

        We tended to fly at around 12,000 feet most times and those observations from one trip seem about right for the rest plus I can confirm from having to drive several of the distances that there is full phone coverage a long the routes.
        • by Gordonjcp (186804) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @02:29AM (#16144121) Homepage
          When I tried it from a motor glider in a fairly remote area (few cells, large areas) I got a snotty letter from Orange saying that roaming at 50kts between very non-adjacent cells made their network shit itself. I wish I'd kept the letter...
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by meringuoid (568297)
            When I tried it from a motor glider in a fairly remote area (few cells, large areas) I got a snotty letter from Orange saying that roaming at 50kts between very non-adjacent cells made their network shit itself. I wish I'd kept the letter...

            1) Get an untraceable PAYG mobile
            2) Load it onto a remote-controlled plane
            3) Fly it around over central London at lunchtime
            4) ???
            5) Try to explain to Hastur and Ligur exactly how this constitutes
            6) Profit!

            • by Splab (574204)
              I don't think Hastur and Ligur really grasps the possibilities.

              And I don't think guys like Crowley care about being traced...
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by pyat (303115)
            In the research center where I work, one of the guys who had worked on the GSM spec gave a talk on this.

            He said that the big problem was that it is very tricky for an airborne phone to decide what cell it's closest to, since it can see loads of them and they're all pretty much the same distance (the downward distance is now very large compared to the on-ground inter-cell distance). This means your phone keeps jumping between cells, which incurs quite a lot of overhead on the network (and if you had a plane
            • by MountainLogic (92466) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @11:49AM (#16146459) Homepage
              I've seen very simular problems on mountain top. On top of South Sister in Centeral Oregon (Western US) at 10,350 feet I've seen hapless users try to use their cell phones to no avail. As much as some twit on cell phones in a wilderness area chokes me I told him to just drop off the summit - any direction - and sure enough he was able to connect. His problem was too many cells. Dropping even a few meter below the summit limited his line of sight to a reasonable (and planned for) number of cells.
        • by Technician (215283) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @03:30AM (#16144287)
          I had signal for a decent phone call up to ~5,000 feet and could send SMS to around ~6,000 feet, soon after this I lost signal.

          More likely you had too much signal. From altitude you tie up one RF channel on several dozen towers in range instead of running at reduced power on the closest tower. This blanket coverage of dozens of towers tying up a channel without the ability to hand your signal to a single tower and free up the frequency on other towers for use by others is why they don't permit phone use on aircraft. If the system is smart, it may have shut down your phone to clear the frequency as the towers noticed an even signal strength from one phone over dozens of towers. You simply did not get a tower assignment at altitude.
          • by x2A (858210) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @04:13AM (#16144372)
            For this balloon thing though, could put the GSM unit into a downward facing pringles tube [bbc.co.uk], increasing the signal strength, narrowing the transmitted area, and sticking to their "cheap, very very cheap" idea :-)

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by another_henry (570767)
              Yes we will be trying a directional GSM antenna on a later flight, just out of interest more than anything else. The results from the radio were so good that we are planning to spend the next couple of flights proving that a GSM phone is not required, that would save considerable mass and money.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Trogre (513942)
        Man someone really needs to tell Dylan Avery [wikipedia.org] about this!

      • by AsnFkr (545033) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @11:08AM (#16146104) Homepage Journal
        Well, to be fair Flight 93 was pretty close to the ground compared to your average flight.
    • Billing!
    • by GrahamCox (741991) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @12:42AM (#16143801) Homepage
      I'm sure the phones will work at more or less any height - the higher the better. The problem is that at very high altitudes, the phone "sees" hundreds of cell base stations at once, and the system isn't really designed to deal with this. Even if one cell can decide it will take the initial call, cell switching will be occurring every few seconds as the signal strength fluctuates. The problem multiplies if you are crossing those cells at 500mph. Instead the on board mini-station grabs the call and keeps hold of it, allowing a single dedicated downlink to maintain sanity in the system.

      At least this is my only partially-informed assumption (a long time ago I was a radio negineer, but I don't know about the actual implementation details of GSM.) But logically, allowing in-flight GSM phone calls is a bad idea because of the reasoning above. The system is designed on the assumption that calls will be made on the ground, therefore range-limited, and thus can only possibly be routed by one or two base stations, not hundreds.
      • by brandonY (575282) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @12:47AM (#16143828)
        I'm sure the phones will work at more or less any height - the higher the better.

        Not to be a sarcastic, literal-taking idiot, but I bet if I were, say, 0.5 AU high, my phone wouldn't work. Heck, I bet the lousy thing wouldn't even work from the moon's surface, especially if I was in a tunnel.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by tylernt (581794)
          There are indeed distance limitations to GSM. Same problem with long runs of cable in Ethernet -- signals only travel at the speed of light, so there starts to be a lag between packet transmission and packet reception. IIRC, in GSM this limit is about 27 miles. When GSM was first deployed in Australia, some remote regions could get full signal, yet not maintain a call because the lag time was too great for the TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) timeslice to handle. In Ethernet this would be called a "late
          • by x2A (858210)
            Unless you wire your phone antenna to the plane, use the whole goddamn thing as an antenna :-p

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by honkycat (249849)
        On aircraft, you have the additional problem that you are moving from cell to cell much faster than the system was designed to handle. So even if you are able to lock and stay locked to a single tower, it'll have to hand you off to the next tower before it's ready to do so.

        I've experienced problems which I am pretty sure are related to hopping between towers -- not on an aircraft, but when hiking in the Smokey Mountains in North Carolina. We got up to the top and I was surprised to find that I had 4 or 5
      • by Technician (215283) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @03:35AM (#16144297)
        The problem is that at very high altitudes, the phone "sees" hundreds of cell base stations at once, and the system isn't really designed to deal with this.

        On the flip side, the phone can't deal with dozens of control signals from dozens of towers on the same channel. Normal operation a phone sees a control channel from several towers nearby on several frequencies. These control channels get geographly re-used. At altitude it's the ability to see many towers on the same frequency at the same time scramples the signal to the phone and breaks the phone ability to lock on to a control signal. This is the sudden loss of signal bars seen on an airbone phone. Too many towers in view at close to the same signal strength and on the same channels as each other.
    • by grumbel (592662)

      Why do we need inflight GSM mini stations then?

      The planes fuselage acts as a non-perfect faraday cage, so most of the signals get blocked, to compensate the mobile phones transmit at full power, which however isn't all that good for the planes electronic. If they have a GSM mini station on board the mobile phone will send with low power, since the signal isn't blocked by the fuselage anymore. It would of course also make the calls more stable, since there is a lot less probability for disconnects, GSM was

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Load. Because one cell phone has to be in communication with probably at least 25 cell towers all at once. Down on the ground it's easy for the phone to switch towers. It has a choice of ~3, maybe more if it needs them. In the air it's getting back information it requested from all 25 line-of-sight towers (or however many get the ping, which when flying over a city would be hundreds)...and since you're flying at 500MPH, you're leaving one zone and entering the next practically every 5 seconds.

      Now not to say
    • Radio waves are dragged back down to earth by gravity. The only reason a GSM phone wouldn't work is range to the towers, and it's only 20 miles.
      • by packeteer (566398)
        Radio waves travel through the "ether". Thats why around the equator cell phones don't work. There is a cosmic "wind" in the ether caused by the rotation of the earth.
    • by another_henry (570767) <slashdot@henryha ... inus threevowels> on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @05:39AM (#16144556) Homepage
      In experiments with light aircraft and with the balloon we found that ordinary GSM mobile phones / cellphones stop working at about 2km, 6000ft altitude. There are a few ideas as to why but my best bet is that it's caused by the phone being able to see several towers operating on the same frequency, which you can rarely/never do from the ground. We had telemetry from the two 434MHz radios during the flight and the GSM phone was a backup to send the landing site location if it landed in an area of poor radio reception (which was not unlikely - when the balloon is in the air it should be possible to receive transmissions from the 10mW transmitter at a distance of at least 400km but when it's on the ground, especially with the antenna facing down, you're lucky to hear it within 1km)
  • ACES (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @12:25AM (#16143726)
    I was in the same program last year at a different university (LSU). The stuff is somewhat exciting, but I don't really think it's newsworthy. I feel like it only made the news because it of the famous university name tacked on...

    Regardless, what they've done is an outstanding achievement. The year before mine our school tried to take a picture up there (~100,000 feet) but it didn't work because the cold temperature changed the timing of some electronics, causing them to malfunction =/

    I was in charge of the thermal stuff, and let me tell you, it's pretty hard to keep it warm but not so warm that the sun toasts it. And keep in mind the payload, as they call it, could only be 500 grams!
    • The year before mine our school tried to take a picture up there (~100,000 feet) but it didn't work because the cold temperature changed the timing of some electronics, causing them to malfunction =/

      I was in charge of the thermal stuff...


      Hmmm. So you're saying it was your fault?
      • They should have just placed a P4 cpu on that rig to keep it warm, and if it starts getting cold, slow down the fan
        or stop it. If the box is well insulated, then the real problem would more likely be TOO much heat that cant
        be got ridden off because of the low presure in air. Paint the 'probe' white too btw to reflect the suns heat if its too hot
        or black if its too cold.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by LordSnooty (853791)
      The stuff is somewhat exciting, but I don't really think it's newsworthy. I feel like it only made the news because it of the famous university name tacked on...
      I feel like it only made the news because the pictures were fairly stunning...
  • Seems to me, if they can start launching satellites for tens of thousands of dollars, they'll have no end of business coming their way. Despite surprised optimism, sending a camera to high altitudes is no major feat. The US gov. has been sending small payloads up in balloons since WWII.

    In other news, Steve Balmer was today announced as the MS space program's launch mechanism of choice.

    • by grumbel (592662)
      Seems to me, if they can start launching satellites for tens of thousands of dollars

      They can't, it looks like they want to get payload with a rocket up to 100km. Which is nice and probally usefull for some tasks, but for satellites they would need quite a bit more altitude and of course speed, else gravity will simply catch them and the whole thing falls back to earth.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by twifosp (532320)
      Getting an object to space altitude and getting into orbit are very different things. This project uses the atmosphere's properties (the gases used being lighter than the atmosphere) to lift something to a great height. While it is no easy task, it is hardly putting something into orbit.

      To put something into a stable orbit, you must not only achieve height, but tangential velocity. A rocket that is capable of achieving the neccessary velocity (around 7000 m/s depending on how heavy the object is) will

  • New Aproach? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Faith_Healer (690508) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @12:27AM (#16143739) Homepage
    This (working to launching rockets from baloons) has been done in the US for quite some time. There are plenty of student baloon payload systems and in fact this week there is a confrence going this week on adressing just this topic. As far as using baloons as a launch platform, there is group from Huntsville AL http://chapters.nss.org/al/HAL5/HALO/that [nss.org] has been launching for quite some time. Good luck to the team from the UK but if any one realy interested in getting things done, perhaps all these individual groups should join forces. Just My 2 Cents
    • It would be pretty surprising if such an obvious idea had just been conceived of now. I know that I've thought about balloon-launched rockets a few times, so it's a certainty that people who actually DO things with rockets are quite familiar with the idea. Most good ideas are were thought of long ago.

      Really, if anything, the story is that someone is actually employing a good idea. That's where humans tend to fall down a bit. We've got all kinds of good ideas, but no one ever uses them. Like, this dud

    • This (working to launching rockets from baloons) has been done in the US for quite some time.

      According to Wikipedia's entry on James Van Allen [wikipedia.org] (who, you may recall, passed away just last month), the concept of the "Rockoon" was announced March 1, 1949 by Van Allen and his fellow researchers (some of them US Navy).

      I'm sure Dr. Van Allen would be glad to see people continuing to follow in his (impressive) footsteps.

    • by kthejoker (931838)
      Actually, James Van Allen was launching rockets from balloons waaaaay back in 1952. They were called Roccoons.
  • Not to demean their accomplishments ( I used to fly amateur - and model - rockets too, and greatly anjoyed it ) but let me know when they get into orbit. That is when really useful things can be done.
    I'd contribute to a prize for that.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Orbit is a bit much to ask, though I think that 60 miles would be newsworthy. The amateur rocketeers have already been there, but accomplishing it on the cheap would be remarkable.

      To get there from 20 miles would still require a considerable rocket, though, and I'd be very surprised to see them pull that off for under US$2k. That additional 40 miles is still a considerable event in amateur rocketry, even with the wind essentially eliminated, and that's from a standing start.

      And it's a very, very long way to
      • To get there from 20 miles would still require a considerable rocket, though, and I'd be very surprised to see them pull that off for under US$2k. That additional 40 miles is still a considerable event in amateur rocketry, even with the wind essentially eliminated, and that's from a standing start.

        (Disclaimer: although I work in the same lab as the CUSpaceflight folks, I'm not a member of the team and am not an official spokesperson, etc, etc)

        They're not planning to get to orbit, although they are plann

        • by Rogerborg (306625)
          I can't think of a payload for a 100km straight-up--straight-down mission other than a camera. Care to drop any less cryptic hints?
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by another_henry (570767)
            Camera it is! Plus potentially scientific or student experiments that would like 3 minutes of freefall for considerably less than the price of most sounding rockets. The next step after the 100km rocket is a bit tentative but we would like to add control systems sufficient to put it through a fairly small window in space and time, as a concept demonstrator for something that would latch onto a rotating space tether. At the moment we have no plans to launch anything into orbit. Without MAJOR sponsorship and
            • by AGMW (594303)
              ... we would like to add control systems sufficient to put it through a fairly small window in space and time, as a concept demonstrator for something that would latch onto a rotating space tether.

              This sounds all very interesting ... Is there a project page on the net, or otherwise further reading?

      • by Rogerborg (306625)

        You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

        Specifically I think it means about 7.73 km/sec away from what you think it means. Going up is the easy part. The trick is staying there.

    • by Rogerborg (306625)
      Note to the easily confused. "Getting into orbit" means (for geosynchronous) going 35,786km that way, and also moving at 3070 m/s t'other way. You have to do both, or you're going to come back down this way with a rather nasty bump.
  • What's the fun of a high altitude balloon if you can't jump from the balloon [centennialofflight.gov]?

    "During his descent, he reached speeds up to 614 miles per hour"
    • by leereyno (32197)
      He was the only human being to ever break the sound barrier without being in a craft of some kind.

      Unless of course you consider his pressure suit to be a "craft."

      Lee
  • ...that this isn't the mystery object NASA spotted today?
  • Yes, but orbital? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by caseih (160668) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @12:39AM (#16143786)
    Sending rockets out into space is pretty easy, but the real trick is orbit. Cheap shots to the upper atmosphere don't do a lot of good in terms of launching satellites and other objects into orbit, although I'm sure they can provide experience with the technology. Achieving orbit requires a lot more energy. There's a reason missiles and rockets are the size they are.
    • Re:Yes, but orbital? (Score:5, Informative)

      by QuantumG (50515) <qg@biodome.org> on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @01:00AM (#16143875) Homepage Journal
      For nearly half a century now we've know how to get into orbit using less energy than the brute force rocket approach. Space tethers are well understood technology that these guys could use to pick up a payload in "space" and swing it into orbit. Tethers that reach into the atmosphere are also possible but the math is just that much harder. Rockets are not the only way to space, they just require the least amount of in-orbit infrastructure. Once you have that infrastructure up there though, they really don't make a lot of sense.
    • Re:Yes, but orbital? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Martigan80 (305400) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @01:10AM (#16143906) Journal
      I'm sure this is also understood. The key point here I see is that these people where able to pull of such an event at the cost they did. To me this also seems as a spirited event to prove that you don't need the government or big corps to do such things. I mean for fun this is great but it just might be the trigger to get other people/groups thinking on how to proceed with the next step.
    • There's a reason missiles and rockets are the size they are.

      Meh. From that altitude, even a little weeny rocket can hit anywhere in the UK.

    • Nasa ages ago used a long long tether to generate power, but it made too much and blew (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_tether)

      So attach something like that to your rocket, get the power to 'push' yourself somehow using all those megawatts. Strong electro magnets?
      • That would (pretty much) be a perpetual motion machine. The energy generated by a conductive tether comes (mostly) from your orbital kinetic energy.
  • Raw RGB? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    What self respecting nerd posts a 20 second 240 x 320 video using Raw RGB that weighs in at 69MB??!!
  • by LionKimbro (200000) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @12:43AM (#16143804) Homepage
    Some context, to help understand this: Earth's Atmosphere, as per WikiPedia. [wikipedia.org]

    You can see that weather balloons are in the 18-50 km range, which is what we expect, because that's what they're using, and they got to 32 km.
  • Uh, no... (Score:3, Funny)

    by creimer (824291) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @01:01AM (#16143880) Homepage
    Three engineering students from Cambridge University plan to send an unmanned craft into space for £1,000 ($1,880)...

    So they're sending a high-end Dell laptop into space? It's been awhile since something blew up on the way into space.
  • by Animats (122034) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @03:03AM (#16144224) Homepage

    That's a sounding rocket. In terms of performance, it seems comparable to the WAC Corporal [designation-systems.net] of 1944, or maybe the Aerobee [nasa.gov] of 1947.

    Nothing wrong with building one cheaply, but it's not a step forward.

  • They beat guy from Cygnus High Altitude Balloon [moo.pl] by almost 3 km. But there was three of them, 11 km for each. Cygnus guy did 28 km alone. So he is over two times better than them :)
  • Costs/Point (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MikeMorley (1004009) on Wednesday September 20, 2006 @06:52AM (#16144717)
    I actually worked in the same lab as these guys, so here's my input: The reason that this was an important launch was not the photos, although those are cool, but to test the electronics of the tracker devices they'dd designed and built. If you read their website at http://www.cuspaceflight.co.uk/ [cuspaceflight.co.uk] you'll see the other projects - the rocket to space, but also a controllable parachute that can descend to within 100m of a given location. All fairly impressive stuff, given that they've only jsut finished their 1st year of study. As for costs - only a couple of hundred pounds...
  • Manned flight? Already done in 1982 [darwinawards.com].
  • Maybe they can get something into orbit for the 50th anniversary of Sputnik? They still have a bit more than a year to make it happen.

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