View from a height

By Phil Plait | March 22, 2009 2:01 pm

I’ve been getting tons of email and notes about the four Spanish teenagers who strapped a cheap camera on a weather balloon and lofted it to 30,000 meters… but I’m glad I waited, because now The Big Picture has all the good shots.

View from a balloon at 30,000 meters

When I was a kid, I had a little plastic soldier paratrooper toy with a plastic bag tied to him with strings, and I’d toss him up in the sky as hard as I could. He’d go up like a half meter, and the shroud lines would tangle completely every time he hit the ground. Kids have come a long way.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (45)

  1. T.E.L.

    Nearby (to me) DePauw University’s physics department has a balloon program that’s been ongoing for a while. The flights almost always carry PV cells for efficiency studies, and Geiger counters with coincidence registering for cosmic ray studies, including for muon decay rates to test special relativity. They also carry materials for testing in the cold temperatures, and of course they shoot photos & movies. Balloon programs can be good projects for small groups to do valuable science very affordably.

  2. Pete

    This is pretty cool. As a geeky teenager, I pored through catalogs from Estes Industries — the model-rocket folks — in the mid 1960s. I lived in California; its strict fire codes forbade model rocketry, at least at the time. But if you lived in the right state and were of a mind to try some aerial photography, Estes sold a nose-cone camera to use as the payload for the more-powerful rockets the company sold.

    Once the rocket reached its high point, the payload and its chute were ejected from the top of rocket body. As the camera headed down and the chute unfurled, the chute’s sudden breaking of the camera’s fall triggered the shutter. Not exactly high-rez or something you could reliably aim, but what the hey! It brought aerial photography to kids near you. This takes that concept to new heights!

  4. “After reaching a height of 30,677 meters (over 19 miles), the balloon burst, and the probe begins its descent.”

    There doesn’t seem to be a parachute in any of the photos. How fast did this thing “descend”? The probe looks in pretty decent shape for falling 20 miles.

  5. T.E.L.

    The parachute appears to be the red & blue object situated halfway between the balloon envelope and the instrument package.

  6. Steve, I’m guessing the orange-and-blue bundle under the balloon in picture 11 (also visible in picture 28) is a parachute, but I could be wrong.

    I always wanted to take one of thos @#&*$ X10 wireless webcams that were being advertised EVERYWHERE (via pop-ups) a few years ago and attach it to a tethered balloon to get overhead neighborhood shots.

  7. hhEb09'1


    I took some of those photos with the “Camrock” If I remember right, the ejection charge in the engine had a longer delay, so that the rocket was headed back to earth when it went off–and that’s what triggered the shutter. There may have been more than one version, I dunno.

  8. T.E.L.

    Once Masten Space Systems gets their machine in working order, schools will be able to send small packages to 100 km for just a few hundred dollars.


    @ Steve

    Well, maybe it’s because it didn’t land on hard asphlat but grass and maybe it was wrapped in some kind of a soft material that gave it a soft landing!

  10. MadScientist

    Growing up in a catholic family, it was a plastic Jesus that did all the parachuting in my yard. You should have seen him doings jumps at night.

    @TEL: suborbital flight for a few hundred? I doubt it. You can do that at the moment if you can find , say, 2 stages of suitable decommissioned SAMs or short-range SS missiles, but given the cost of tooling and operating a facility to handle solid propellant rockets the ‘few hundred’ mark is way off.

  11. MadScientist

    Ooo… nice pictures, but kiddies – see the dude grinding stuff without safety goggles? Don’t do like he does unless you want to ruin your eyes.

  12. jest

    BA: I don’t understand how it’s possible for anyone to throw a toy soldier up into the sky as hard as possible and only have it go a half a meter… Unless you were 2 years old at the time? Am I reading this wrong? LOL.

    MadScientist: Yeah any type of grinding I do involves some form of proper safety glasses. It’s amazing what CAN get in your eyes without you even noticing, followed by a rusty spot on the eye a couple days later (heard of a guy that had that happen at my company).

  13. Gary Ansorge

    Plastic Jesus? That’s nothing Dude. I used to jump off the roof of our house holding a sheet for a parachute when I was 9 years old,,,

    Side Note: I stopped doing that when I was twelve,,,seems mass increases a LOT faster than muscle strength,,,

    Gary 7

  14. phil

    There’s actually a fairly robust program of amateur balloon launches with cameras or other scientific instruments. It’s a good program for high-school students. Look here for more info:

  15. PropagandaPanda

    I’m a bit confused why this is getting so much attention. Its been done by amateurs a bunch of times. There are tons of websites out there of people doing this… Even some forums full of people doing it…
    Did i miss something big that happened with this one?

  16. @ Pete:

    We could launch Estes rockets where I grew up. I was always envious of the kid with the “Cineroc,” that was the one with the 8mm movie camera in the nose. Of course, all my rockets were the little funny ones shaped like rabbits and such. It started early for Kuhnigget….

    @ Gary Ansorge:

    Plastic parachute off the roof? Heh heh…tried that with some plastic sheeting from an apple box once. Heh…learned about drag, gravity, and pain all in one lesson.

  17. Daffy

    Where are the stars in the pictures? This is clearly a hoax.

  18. Pete


    I’ll bow to your experience on that one. You launched ’em. I only drooled on a catalog! ūüėČ

  19. T.E.L.

    Mad Scientist,

    Masten has slots pre-selling for as little as $99/350 grams. The current prices are guaranteed. The launcher is of course in development; but the slots already sold will fly on the cheap. Masten may not end up making any profit off them, but that’s another story.

    Masten’s launcher, by the way, doesn’t use solid propellant: it’s a liquid-propelled VTOL.

  20. On a related note, here is a video of Walter Lewin talking about using balloons for X-ray astronomy:

  21. mus

    Cool, I wish I could do that. It’s also really neat when people strap cameras to those remote-control airplanes, although obviously they can’t go anywhere near the heights of the balloon.

    Anyway, why did the balloon burst? Does it have something to do with the integrity of the latex (I assume it’s latex?) as it gets colder? Or is it something more mundane, like the expansion caused by the decreasing pressure outside the balloon?

    if it’s the latter, why don’t they just not inflate it as much? I’m sure it would travel up more slowly, but it would go higher. Does anyone know what the highest theoretical altitude a helium balloon could reach is?

  22. Stephen C. Burrows

    This is just way too cool… thesse are just kids. First time I’ve seen pics like this from HS age kids. I know my students wouldn’t be doing this kind of stuff.

  23. Radwaste

    And MSU does this. Photos at their site.

  24. T.E.L.


    The balloon does explode because the air pressure around it drops. The envelope then stretches eventually to beyond its tensile strength and it rips.

    But there’s more to it than just filling the envelope with less gas. Less gas means less lift. It must be filled to some lower limit in order to just balance the weight of the payload. But the lift drops as the outside air pressure lessens with altitude, and there’s a height at which the lift is exactly as strong as the weight, and so will stop rising beyond that point (if the envelope hasn’t burst at that point, it can keep floating). The balloons are filled with a certain altitude as the objective. A much higher altitude means that the balloon will start to become more expensive. Balloons for sustained high-altitude cruising can have envelopes as voluminous as large skyscrapers, filled with costly gas.

    Of course, a school group will want to make getting the payload back down as simple as possible, so they deliberately fill it enough for it to burst at a planned height.

  25. I had that same paratrooper. he wore Khaki greens and his ‘chute was red and white stripes!

  26. Quiet Desperation

    He’d go up like a half meter, and the shroud lines would tangle completely every time he hit the ground. Kids have come a long way.

    I suppose. My friends and I as teens made our own gunpowder and once launched an old fridge about three meters into the air. Then we got about 20 meters with an old oil barrel. Yes this was far outside city limits. It’s amazing we got out of childhood with all our limbs.

    We did the “camera on a model rocket” too, but always got either blue sky or a green blur we assumed was the ground. Also sent a mouse up three times and she lived. We released her in the local park as her reward. I’d like to note our female mouse-tronaut predated Sally Ride’s launch by five years.

    Then there were the radio control glider years. Yeah, we armed them with bottle rockets and M80 bombs. Getting the fuses of the M80s to light upon release was tricky. Did a couple model rocket engine assisted launches as well. Drove the old timers nuts. Silly purists. ūüėõ

  27. Dj Storm

    Some guys from the US did the same last summer, using a camera, GPSr and radio (and sunflower seeds) as payload. Their images are here:

  28. Jo√£o

    This is very nice. Remember these are high school kids working after class and during the holidays with little more than their passion for science. The best part though is when the batteries of the laptops start to fail and they have to go to a nearby house to recharge them. I wish I could have done something like this when I was in High School.

  29. Grump

    @Jo√£o The best part though is when the batteries of the laptops start to fail and they have to go to a nearby house to recharge them.
    Isn’t that just so typical when you do something for the first time? There’s always something you didn’t think of, something that seems so darned obvious afterwards that you wonder how you could possibly have missed it. Something like bringing along spare batteries. :)

    But if they’d remembered the batteries, they’d probably have forgotten something else instead. That’s just life! And these are the risks of experimentation and applied physics. All in all, an awsome achievement.

    I was surprised at some of the commenters on the site: “Why did they use such a cheap camera? Those shots are lousy!” Like, d’uh, dude! Why don’t you send your $6,000+ DSLR up in an untested rig several miles up, trusting that it will survive the fall! And do it on a high-school student’s budget. And don’t get me started about the over-emotional political discussion that had SFA to do with the project or the photos. :-(

  30. Tim G

    You can use Google’s translation tools to read their blog. However, you must select Catalan instead of Spanish as the latter barely translates.

  31. AJ

    Good work, Spain! Or rather, its teens…

  32. Gary Ansorge


    Yeah, the physics of mass increase of a biped just sucks. I was quite slender as a pre adolescent but by the age of twelve I was getting kinda porky. No more roof jumping, then,,,

    Last time I was in Arabia was in 1990. While sitting around drinking with a couple of Canadian buddies, I came up with the idea of inflating large trash bags with H2, lighting long fuses and setting them adrift over Al Khobar,,,
    ,,,fortunately, we were too drunk to actually do it,,,the Saudi police take a very dim view of such antics(red: no sense of humor). Those dudes carry automatic rifles,,,(I later learned from a Saudi friend they’re not given live amo for their guns. Good thing I didn’t know that when I had that brilliant, comic idea,,,)

    GAry 7

  33. Gary Ansorge

    ,,,READ: no sense of humor,,,

    GAry 7

  34. firemancarl

    Just think. American parents would be mad if there kids did this. How dare they teach science in school!

  35. And to think they could have cracked the first crystal sphere.

  36. Quiet_Desperation

    American parents would be mad if there kids did this.

    Any kid doing today what I did (see above post) would be on a terrorist watch list, if not sitting in Gitmo. :-) Ah, good times.

  37. QD, if you weren’t you are now (on terrorist watch list).

  38. Pieter Kok

    QD you’re right: something is definitely lost when kids can’t do their own science experiments anymore. The fact that most of the time these experiments involve explosions is beside the point.

  39. Dzipi

    I’m not sure if these are the same guys from picasa, but here is a look from another (same?) near space baloon in photosynth. If you use a “Go to grid [~]” control/option at upper right you can browse all individual images.

    If you are on Mac use this link:

    From the same source: Info on the project and some Youtube videos:

  40. Cool stuff. We have a local group that has done similar launches. Several years ago they launched a video camera. I had the honor/challenge of tracking the flight with our observatory’s 24″ telescope, and managed to catch the balloon bursting on video from over 30 miles (50 km) away at an altitude of 87,000 feet (26,500 meters). Click on my name for the videos.

  41. Stark

    A group of undergraduates and I are also working on a project just like this. I am a college student at Hagerstown Community College in Western Maryland. We’re going to launch it in the coming weeks! So it’s very exciting!



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