sugru in space!

[Fix of the Month, October 2012]

"We want to send sugru into space, does it work in temperatures around -50C?"

That's the first thing we heard from Matt, a schoolteacher. And you know what? The answer was "Yes it can! Tell us more! Can we help?"

Here's Matt's story:

"We [my pupils and I] first came up with the idea of sending a package into near space 18 months ago, but the costs made it impractical at the time. However, since then similar projects have been shown on various TV programs and written about in newspapers, which raised the profile enough for schools to enlist the support of university departments, which we did.

The project was built by 13 pupils aged 11 to 14, the majority of whom were girls. We had a small budget from the school that allowed us to go ahead with it, provided we used some novel money-saving ideas too. For instance, I used my own mobile phone to track the balloon!

Project outline: Aim: To photograph the earth from near space and return the payload undamaged Timeframe: 4 months from design to launch Equipment: - Polystyrene box + lid - Kite string - Electrical tape - Handwarmers - to keep the electronics warm with outside temps of -40 - Canon Ixus digital camera - set up to take photos automatically following a schedule - Flipcam - to record the whole trip - Generic digital video camera - facing down to record the takeoff/landing - HTC Wildfire mobile phone with gps tracking software - to track the package for retrieval - 1000g latex balloon - Helium - 2m of kite fabric (we chose to build our own parachute to save money) ...and last but not least: sugru

The problem: the cameras needed to be fixed in place so that the lenses would look unimpeded through the holes in the box. The pupils soon found that the glue they wanted to use stopped sticking in low temperatures. We also needed access to the cameras to turn them on and program the time-lapse, so sealing the box permanently before launch wasn't an option.

I'd used sugru before and once we found it would work at extreme temperatures, we used it to mould housings for each camera, allowing them to slide in and out whilst being held securely when turned on. The pupils also used some basic electronic skills to solder an external battery onto a camera. High wear areas of the polystyrene were reinforced with sugru to prevent the friction of the string melting through the box, and the camera lenses were surrounded with sugru to waterproof the payload in case of a water (or sewage!)-based landing.

After many lunchtimes of research and work the payload was built, electronics tested in the freezer, parachute made and dropped with different weights with varying success and the all important check list for launch written.

The launch

After one failed launch due to problems with air traffic, we got permission to launch after school on 19th of July. It went perfectly!

After the balloon vanished into the cloud we turned to the computers. The tracking was working and the ballon was following the predicted flightpath. After 60,000 ft we lost contact when the GPS signal failed. An hour later the payload was back within GPS range and falling like a rock! We're still not sure how well the parachute functioned - it fell fast from over 100,000 ft.

We retrieved the payload from a wheat field completely undamaged, ate the 'space sweets' placed inside, and booted up the cameras and had a look the the photos. They came out beautifully!

I'm still astonished that we achieved our goals with such a small budget using a 'spaceship' designed and built by school kids, most of whom are not even teenagers!"

Thanks for sharing your story, Matt! It's so cool that you and your pupils made this happen, and we're happy we were able to help a little bit!

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Other people's comments

I think Lee might've been referring to the pics taken in/of space... That's an awesome project!

  • Brynda
  • Brynda

Thanks for the info Dave, we were expecting to loose signal at some point both mobile and GPS so we decamped to the pub! Sorry lee I can't post many of the photos or videos because they have pictures of the the pupils in them

  • Matt Lewis
  • Matt Lewis

Is a link available to see all the pictures and video? Great job to all!!!!

  • Lee
  • Lee

Very cool project Matt. I think I may know what happened to the GPS signal. I read an article in Circuit Cellar magazine about a similar issue. It seems that some GPS manufacturers interpreted the rules differently and stopped giving data above 60,000 ft. It was intended to stop data transmission above 60,000 ft only if it was traveling at extreme velocities (to prevent use in a weapon or missile). Some GPS manufacturers interpret it correctly and their GPS will work above 60,000 ft when velocity is low or reasonable (like your balloon).

  • Dave Filicicchia
  • Dave Filicicchia

I'd love to do that some day, but how do you know it isn't going to land on someone's head, the parachute having failed, and kill them?

  • Darren Campbell
  • Darren Campbell

Thanks for weighing in, Matt!

Jules, the camera was loaded with custom firmware from CDHK it took a bit of scripting but it allowed both photo and video from the same camera set at different time intervals. It also recorded temperature and adjusted the aperture to compensate for the different light levels. I think the website has a list of compatible cannon cameras.

  • Matt Lewis
  • Matt Lewis

Awesome project! I'd be very interested to hear what IXUS camera lets you pre-program exposures according to a schedule. Cheers! Jules

  • Jules
  • Jules