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Sending Your iPhone to Space in a Balloon

Three separate amateur teams show atmospheric science is cool

Space balloon
Looking down at Earth from 100,000 feet in the Brooklyn Space Program’s “Space Balloon.”

October 21, 2010 — A father and son recently launched a balloon system to the edge of space and have the pictures and video to prove it. Luke Geissbuhler and his son Max spent eight months researching the best way to send a balloon with a capsule containing an iPhone and HD video camera aloft and return it safely to Earth. The Geissbuhlers are part of a group of friends who founded the Brooklyn Space Program in Brooklyn, New York, to further their interests in scientific experiments, engineering, design, and education. This project is not unique as at least two other teams have recently accomplished what may be an emerging fad: sending your iPhone to space and back.

The video, produced by Luke, shows the methodical preparations that they went through preceding the launch that occurred in August. The camera and iPhone were secured in an insulated capsule stuffed with a chemical hand warmer to keep the equipment warm in the hostile climates aloft. New York Magazine said the capsule was made from a takeout box.

The research team also had to explore such considerations as regulations that required the craft to have reflective properties to improve radar detection; weights to keep the capsule from spinning; and a parachute deployment system once the balloon burst. Luke and Max, along with other friends seen in the video, computed the maximum height the balloon would ascend based on physics of the atmosphere. Other calculations such as the buffeting due to wind currents seemed to be validated on the video.

The moments after the burst of the balloon had an almost serene quality, much like what SpaceShipOne pilots may have experienced at the apogee of their flights. The 70-minute ascent was followed by a 32-minute return to Earth. The iPhone, sent along to provide GPS position reports, signaled a landing spot only 30 miles north of the launch.

“We were both elated, stunned, and walking on air,” Luke Geissbuhler said in an e-mail to EAA. “Max kept holding parts of the craft saying, ‘This thing went to space!’”

Luke says the Brooklyn Space Program is working on a “how-to” book about the project specifically aimed at parents and children, with a release date planned for November.

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

An emerging hobby?

Sending an iPhone to the edge of space is not new. Two students at MIT were probably one of the first teams to accomplish this type of flight in September 2009. They used a Styrofoam beer cooler and a Canon still-frame camera to document the flight. This year, in addition to the Brooklyn Space Program, at least two other amateur teams have successfully attempted and documented their feats. A Minnesota group launched the Yavin IV loaded with a Flip Camera, iPhone, and Droid smartphone on September 24, 2010.

A San Francisco group used a pair of HD Hero cameras to capture several angles of their second balloon flight on June 24, 2010. The ascent to 80,000 feet and back traveled 70 miles laterally and provided spectacular views of the California coast. The video shows very compelling images of the descent, or dare we say “reentry,” to Earth.

Near Space Balloon Flight, shot with HD HERO cameras from GoPro from Kevin Macko on Vimeo.

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