Just Too Cool: College kids build space camera for $148

Watching the destruction of education in the US and elsewhere should be sufficient to prove that throwing lots of money at a project doesn’t always produce results.

Here is a great story.

The $150 Edge-of-Space Camera: MIT Students Beat NASA On Beer-Money Budget

Meet the $150 (almost to) Space Camera.

Bespoke is old hat. Off-the-shelf is in. Even Google runs the world’s biggest and scariest server farms on computers home-made from commodity parts. DIY is cheaper and often better, as Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh found out when they decided to send a camera into space.

The two students (from MIT, of course) put together a low-budget rig to fly a camera high enough to photograph the curvature of the Earth. Instead of rockets, boosters and expensive control systems, they filled a weather balloon with helium and hung a styrofoam beer cooler underneath to carry a cheap Canon A470 compact camera. Instant hand warmers kept things from freezing up and made sure the batteries stayed warm enough to work[This will now be every model rock kid’s dream.]

Of course, all this would be pointless if the guys couldn’t find the rig when it landed, so they dropped a prepaid GPS-equipped cellphone inside the box for tracking. Total cost, including duct tape? $148. [LOL]


Two weeks ago, on Sept. 2, at the leisurely post-breakfast hour of 11:45 a.m., the balloon was launched from Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Lee and Yeh took a road trip in order to compensate for the prevailing winds, which could have otherwise taken the balloon out onto the Atlantic, and checked in on the University of Wyoming’s balloon trajectory website to estimate the landing site.

Because of spotty cellphone coverage in central Massachusetts,[ROFL!] it was important to keep the rig in the center of the state so it could be found upon landing. Light winds meant the guys got lucky and, although the cellphone’s external antenna was buried upon landing, the fix they got as the balloon was coming down was close enough.

The Photographs

The balloon and camera made it up high enough to see the black sky curling around our blue planet. [Is this cool or what!?] The Canon was hacked with the CHDK (Canon Hacker’s Development Kit) open-source firmware, [Oooo… gotta learn more about this…] which adds many features to Canon’s cameras. The intervalometer (interval timer) was set to shoot a picture every five seconds, and the 8-GB memory card was enough to hold pictures for the five-hour duration of the flight.

The picture you see above was shot from around 93,000 feet, just shy of 18 miles high. It’s short of the widely-accepted Kármán line, which is at 100km (62 miles) up, but it’s in the stratosphere, and it’s still impressive. To give you an idea of how high that is, when the balloon burst, the beer-cooler took 40 minutes to come back to Earth.

What is most astonishing about this launch, named Project Icarus, is that anyone could do it. The budget is so small as to be almost nonexistent (the guys slept in their car the night before the launch to save money), so that even if everything went wrong, a second, third or fourth attempt would be easy. All it took was a grand idea and an afternoon poking around the hardware store.

The project website has few details on how the balloon was put together — but the students say they will be posting the step-by-step instructions soon. UPDATE: The instructions will be available for free, not $150, as earlier reported.

Project Icarus page [1337 Arts]

Photo credit: 1337 Arts/Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh

Time lapse actually doesn’t look that great because the cooler was not stabilized.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. catholicmidwest says:

    That is AWESOME, but I’m glad I didn’t get gobsmacked with the cooler on the way down.

  2. cgdouglas says:


  3. Brian Day says:

    I think that the achievement of these two students is impressive. Not to take away from that achievement though, I think that the $148 price tag is the payload side only. I don’t think it includes the cost of the weather balloon or the helium. Of course, the balloon could have been donated.

  4. The Digital MC says:

    Really cool!!

  5. Margaret says:

    Sweet! This is very much in keeping with the ‘Tute’s spirit of fun-loving innovation. You may also get a chuckle out of the assorted “hacks” (large-scale non-destructive pranks) accomplished over the years at http://hacks.mit.edu

  6. Jayna says:

    I knew duct tape had to be in there somewhere. NASA, eat your heart out.

  7. ghp95134 says:

    Phew …. their site states that a parachute was employed! I had visions of a 1.75 -pound styrofoam cooler hitting someone upon impact.

  8. pseudomodo says:

    Well…… Truly Awesome!

    Not to put a damper on things but… did they check with the aeronautics administration to clear thier balloon of aircraft crossing thier paths? I would hate to be on a flight that sucked a beer cooler into its jets.

    just asking…

  9. Rob Cartusciello says:

    The biggest science project we did in college was build a water balloon slingshot out of a plastic funnel and twenty feet of surgical tubing.

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