As a physics student and astrophotographer I get asked many times what the ways are anyone could “touch space”. The easiest solution to get you the closest to the cosmos and help you explore the universe is of course to get involved in amateur astronomy and look or image through a telescope. But what if you want to take measurements in space or just want to look down on Earth from a different perspective? Well, thanks to recent advancements in technology, there are two ways you can “easily” get your own images and measurements from space. I am very lucky to have been involved in both in 2019.
The European Astro Pi Mission
The first of these is available to teams of elementary and high school age students and their teachers from their schools or code-clubs from an ESA Member State, Slovenia, Canada or Malta. It is the European Astro Pi Challenge, which is ran by ESA and the Raspberry Pi foundation. The main goal of the challenge is to promote STEM by organizing a competition that offers young people the amazing opportunity to conduct scientific investigations in space by writing computer programs that run on Raspberry Pi computers aboard the International Space Station.
I am lucky to have been in phase 2 of all 4 missions to date. So far two of my team’s experiments ran on the ISS. Of these the first one in 2017 couldn’t take pictures due to mission rules. It was able to collect useful data about the Earth’s magnetic field and life on the station though.
Our 2019 Astro Pi Experiment’s main objectives were Investigating Light Pollution, measuring the density and proving the globular shape of planet Earth. Unfortunately, we don’t have stunning pictures of the light pollution of cities, due to them appearing small in the camera. We do have interesting images though, of for example the Canary Islands, the Great Lakes, the Sierra Nevada range and much more.
High Altitude Ballooning
The second way of “touching space”, that is available to anyone is High Altitude Ballooning. As It’s name insist It involves sending your scientific payload(consisting of cameras and specific sensors with data loggers) to Near Space with a Helium or Hydrogen filled Weather Balloon. The payload has a parachute on it, and contains at least one GPS or Radio tracker. This is so you can recover images and data(maybe even your equipment) after the balloon pops at around 30 kilometers of altitude.
From this height the Earth’s curvature is clearly visible. You can also easily measure weather details, data related to movement, record the flight path etc. It’s fairly easy to get involved. Usually you can crowdfund an experiment at a school or science related organization in a short period of time. You can also get involved by donating a small sum to an existing experiment.
After our successful Astro Pi 2019 mission, my high school teamed up with the Vega Astronomical Association, to conduct our own weather balloon-based space experiment, without the help of equipment already launched to space. The goal was to image the Earth’s curvature and collect measurements of Its magnetic field from Near-Space. The launch was completely crowdfunded by members and supporters of the association. The “scientific payload” of the balloon included a fully functional Astro Pi machine, a GPS Tracker and an Action camera.
The balloon experiment was very successful, reaching more than thirty kilometers in altitude, even though it took 5 weeks to find our probe from the launch at this year’s VEGA Astronomy Camp, due to a faulty tracker unit. Our launch took place around sunset, so we have images of the last visible sunlight illuminating the horizon among other interesting astronomical and meteorological phenomena.
I hope this article will help you touch space in the very near future! If you have any other recommended ways for the average science enthusiast to get closer to the cosmos, be sure to let us know!
1. Astro Pi Images: UltimaSpace Team, https://ultima.space
2. HAB Images: Vega Astronomical Association, http://vcse.hu
3. Astro Pi Mission: Official website, astro-pi.org