You don't always need an expensive digital SLR to capture awe-inspiring images. Sometimes, a basic Canon PowerShot A470 point-and-shoot camera, a little ingenuity and a beer cooler are all you need. Such were the tools used by two MIT students to capture images of Earth from the upper atmosphere -- the camera didn't go high enough to enter space.
Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh aimed, in Project Icarus, to fly a camera high enough to photograph the curvature of the earth. Without having a NASA-sized budget for a rocket, they opted for the more cost-effective method of filling a weather balloon with helium and suspending a Styrofoam cooler underneath to hold the camera. They also placed some instant hand warmers inside the cooler to keep the camera and its battery from freezing.
The balloon was launched from Sturbridge, Massachusetts, on 2 September, 2009. The University of Wisconsin maintains a balloon-trajectory Web site that the students used to determine where their set-up might land. A GPS-enabled, prepaid mobile phone was placed in the cooler to let them track its return to Earth and locate it after landing.
The camera and balloon reached an altitude of 93,000 feet (28km), at which point the above photo was taken. It's around this altitude that a balloon will pop, allowing the rig to fall back to Earth. The cooler took 40 minutes to return to Earth.
The students hacked the A470 with the Canon Hackers Development Kit, modifying the firmware to add features such as an intervalometer. They set the intervalometer to shoot a photo every 5 seconds, and an 8GB memory card provided enough storage capacity to hold all of the images from the 5-hour flight.
The total cost of the project was $148 (£90). The students have said they will soon make available step-by-step instructions for their space-camera project. More information is available on the project's Web site.