Humans can’t seem to interact with the environment at all without fouling it in some way. From plastic bags in the ocean’s deepest regions to soot on Himalayan glaciers, our waste is finding its way into Earth’s most difficult-to-reach places.
Now, we can add metals in the stratosphere to this ignominious list.
A Japanese company has put out the call for passengers who’d be willing to pay more than $175,000 for an hours-long ride in a balloon-borne capsule that will rise as high as 15 miles (25 kilometers).
Technically, that’s nowhere near the boundary of outer space, but it’s high enough to get an astronaut’s-eye view of the curving Earth beneath a black sky.
“It’s safe, economical and gentle for people,” the CEO of a startup called Iwaya Giken, Keisuke Iwaya, told reporters in Tokyo. “The idea is to make space tourism for everyone.”
Other companies are planning similar stratospheric tourist ventures. But if Iwaya’s venture sticks to its announced timeline and begins flying customers around the end of this year, it would be the first to get to market.
Just a little over two years since Felix Baumgartner broke USAF Colonel Joseph Kittinger’s stratospheric jump record, Alan Eustace from Google has independently smashed the high altitude skydiving record again. This brings home to Silicon Valley a record that might stand for a while. Eustace took a minimalist approach to the jump. His setup involved a helium filled balloon and just him hanging from the balloon in a spacesuit. Pure and simple, this permitted his system to reach 135,890 feet above the Earth, over 41 kilometers altitude, exceeding Baumgartner’s record by 7000 feet.
The simple design of his balloon launch might remind one of a bungy jump. This one maxed out at 822 mph and created a sonic boom. How can anyone break his record now? Can someone rise to a higher altitude? What is next for the Google high flyers? Will Baumgartner take this as a challenge to retake the record?
The 57 year old Alan Eustace is a Senior Vice President at Google in its Knowledge department. He is a licensed pilot but not known for undertaking extraordinary feats of daredevil. Eustace grew up in Florida and recalls that his childhood was filled with trips to Cape Canaveral for NASA launches. Not a spur of the moment undertaking, Eustace had dreamt of accomplishing this feat and record for some time.
This is the third successful balloon skydiving jump from over 100,000 feet. All three have been accomplished from Roswell, New Mexico. Kittinger’s was in 1961, Baumgartner in 2012, and now Eustace in 2014. A fourth jump was undertaken in 1966 from a height of 123,000 feet but ended in failure and the death of the skydiver, Nicholas Piantanida.
The trip to the upper heights of the atmosphere took two hours. All this time he was forced to hang very still to avoid over-heating. His spacesuit had minimal ability to cool his body during the ascent. While the stratosphere reaches temperatures of 100 below zero, the atmosphere is exceedingly thin and body heat has no way to radiate away.
Without a capsule like Baumgartner and Kittinger before him, he relied solely on a spacesuit custom built by Paragon Space Development Corporation, a designer of life support devices. The simple design exceeded Baumgartner by over 7000 feet, nearly a mile and a half more. Eustace’s new record is approaching the maximum that has ever been achieved by any lighter than air craft, manned or unmanned.
The unmanned high altitude record for balloon flight was set in 2002 from Sanriku Balloon Center at Ofunato City, Iwate in Japan. This record stands at 173,900 feet. So there is plenty of room for record breaking but it will require pushing the limits of technology. In this day and age, there are many keen to push technological limits.
Google execs are no strangers to high flying. At Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, just a couple of miles from executive headquarters of Google, a small group of executives utilize a German made Dornier Alpha jet. Collaboratively with NASA Ames, the jet is flown by the execs and other experienced pilots to study the upper atmosphere and quite possibly to take in the views around the San Francisco bay area. They are often seen making touch n’ go’s at Moffett to maintain skills and certification. Google, the corporation, clearly showed its interest in space applications with the purchase of Skybox, a microsatellite builder, in June of this year for a reported $500 million.
It was billed as the U.S. S. Enterprise’s first “real” flight in space, but the spaceship didn’t get quite that far.
A group of Star Trek fans launched a model of the famed fictional vessel to an altitude of 95,568 feet (29,129 meters) above Canada, or about 18.1 miles (29.1 kilometers), they told media.
The Karman line — a commonly accepted threshold for the edge of space — is at about 62 miles, or 100 kilometers, above sea level.
Still, the high-flying feat made the Canadian group quite happy, even though the ship made a suicidal crash landing at the end of its flight.
“We lost our engines,” said Steve Schnier, a member of the group that set Enterprise aloft with a weather balloon from Stayner, Ontario, in an interview with Canada AM.
“It wasn’t a smooth ride,” Schnier added concerning the ship’s final minutes. “It was moving, at one point, at 117 kilometres [72.7 miles] an hour.”
Enterprise smashed into the water near a Georgian Bay island in an area roughly 2.5 hours’ drive north of Canada’s largest city of Toronto. Searchers found it using a GPS signal.
The launch at the end of April came just weeks before Star Trek: Into Darkness, the next installment of the nearly 50-year-old franchise, zoomed into theaters in Canada and the United States this week. (Read our full review here.)
Weather balloon flights are used in science to collect information about the upper atmosphere. Other amateur groups have had fun using the idea, flying tokens ranging from teddy bears to Lego figurines.
The Moon photographed through the layers of the atmosphere from the ISS in December 2003 (NASA/JSC)
What lives at the edge of space? Other than high-flying jet aircraft pilots (and the occasional daredevil skydiver) you wouldn’t expect to find many living things over 10 kilometers up — yet this is exactly where one NASA researcher is hunting for evidence of life.
Earth’s stratosphere is not a place you’d typically think of when considering hospitable environments. High, dry, and cold, the stratosphere is the layer just above where most weather occurs, extending from about 10 km to 50 km (6 to 31 miles) above Earth’s surface. Temperatures in the lowest layers average -56 C (-68 F) with jet stream winds blowing at a steady 100 mph. Atmospheric density is less than 10% that found at sea level and oxygen is found in the form of ozone, which shields life on the surface from harmful UV radiation but leaves anything above 32 km openly exposed.
Sounds like a great place to look for life, right? Biologist David Smith of the University of Washington thinks so… he and his team have found “microbes from every major domain” traveling within upper-atmospheric winds.
Smith, principal investigator with Kennedy Space Center’s Microorganisms in the Stratosphere (MIST) project, is working to take a census of life tens of thousands of feet above the ground. Using high-altitude weather balloons and samples gathered from Mt. Bachelor Observatory in central Oregon, Smith aims to find out what kinds of microbes are found high in the atmosphere, how many there are and where they may have come from.
“Life surviving at high altitudes challenges our notion of the biosphere boundary.”
– David Smith, Biologist, University of Washington in Seattle
Although reports of microorganisms existing as high as 77 km have been around since the 1930s, Smith doubts the validity of some of the old data… the microbes could have been brought up by the research vehicles themselves.
“Almost no controls for sterilization are reported in the papers,” he said.
But while some researchers have suggested that the microbes could have come from outer space, Smith thinks they are terrestrial in origin. Most of the microbes discovered so far are bacterial spores — extremely hardy organisms that can form a protective shell around themselves and thus survive the low temperatures, dry conditions and high levels of radiation found in the stratosphere. Dust storms or hurricanes could presumably deliver the bacteria into the atmosphere where they form spores and are transported across the globe.
If they land in a suitable environment they have the ability to reanimate themselves, continuing to survive and multiply.
Although collecting these high-flying organisms is difficult, Smith is confident that this research will show how such basic life can travel long distances and survive even the harshest environments — not only on Earth but possibly on other worlds as well, such as the dessicated soil of Mars.
“We still have no idea where to draw the altitude boundary of the biosphere,” said Smith. This research will “address how long life can potentially remain in the stratosphere and what sorts of mutations it may inherit while aloft.”
Read more on Michael Schirber’s article for Astrobiology Magazine here, and watch David Smith’s seminar “The High Life: Airborne Microbes on the Edge of Space” held May 2012 at the University of Washington below:
Inset images – Top: layers of the atmosphere, via the Smithsonian/NMNH. Bottom: Scanning electron microscope image of atmospheric bacterial spores collected from Mt. Bachelor Observatory (NASA/KSC)
Two teens from Toronto,Canada have launched “Lego Man in Space” using a helium filled weather balloon and captured stunning video of the miniature toy figure back dropped by the beautiful curvature of Earth and the desolate blackness of space that’s become a worldwide YouTube sensation – over 2 million hits !
17 year olds Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad lofted the tiny 2 inch tall Lego figure from a local Toronto soccer field up to a height of about 85,000 feet, or 16 miles (25 kilometers), where the 22 foot (7 m) diameter helium balloon burst in what is technically known as the stratosphere. The homemade styrofoam capsule – equipped with two video cameras and two digital cameras (Canon) – then parachuted back to Earth.
“We launched the project on January 7,” Mathew Ho told Universe Today.
“Altogether, we used 4 cameras, two cameras taking stills, and two taking video – Canon, Sony, GoPro – in the 1 cubic foot capsule,” Ho explained.
“After endless hours of hard work, we managed to capture stunning views of our atmosphere and put a ‘Lego’ man into near space!” said the ambitious teens who are 12th graders at the Agincourt Collegiate Institute.
The pair posted a YouTube video (below) documenting the entire voyage and some camera snapshots on their website on January 25.
Lego Man even snapped cool Moon shots – look closely at the video and photo below.
“Lego Man in Space” – The Video
The duo recounted the details of their sensational space tale of science on a shoestring for Canadian TV and newspapers.
“Upon launch we were very relieved. But we had a lot of anxiety on launch day because there were high winds when we were going up after all the hard work,” said Ho in a studio interview on Canadian TV (CTV).
“We were also scared because now we would have to retrieve it back after it came down,” Asad chimed in.
“We had no idea it would capture photos like that and would be so good,” said Ho. “We were blown away when we saw them back home.”
The toy Lego astronaut is seen standing atop a thin runway protruding precariously from one end of the small, box shaped capsule as though he was walking the plank and about to plunge into the ocean of space. All the while, cameras were aimed directly out towards him recording the entire rollicking journey from liftoff to the stratosphere to landing, with a constantly changing Earth in the background.
Altogether they netted two videos and 1500 photos.
Coincidentally, several Lego toys are constantly flying even higher above the Earth at this very moment aboard the International Space Station as part of an educational outreach effort by NASA and Lego. And 3 more Lego figurines are speeding to Jupiter aboard NASA’s Juno orbiter.
Legoman’s spectacular journey lasted some 97 minutes. He’s beaming proudly throughout the video while holding the Canadian National flag – the Red Maple Leaf. The rollercoaster-like scenery may well challenge the stomachs of those with fear of heights.
Mathew and Asad worked over about four months one day a week on Saturdays to assemble the rig in Mathew’s kitchen and successfully accomplished the feat on a shoestring budget of merely 400 dollars. They used GPS trackers to locate “Lego Man in Space” and recover the intact capsule holding the imagery.
After the balloon burst at 85,000 feet, the parachute assisted descent back to Earth took about 32 minutes. Winds aloft caused the capsule to drift some 76 miles (122 kilometers) away from the launch site before landing at Rice Lake in one piece.
“We were jumping for joy when we saw the capsule and the parachute. We were ecstatic when we found it,” said Ho.
“We have a long history of passionate building and working together,” Ho told CTV.
The project began after they saw that MIT students had sent a camera to the edge of space with a balloon and captured stunning views.
“We were inspired by videos and pictures we had seen online two years ago and we began working on this in the Fall of 2011. In total the project cost about $400 Canadian,” Ho told me.
“We hope to publish more pictures and video to our Facebook page and website soon,” Ho added.
And now we know another truth about Lego’s – Not only can they withstand the destructive forces of kids, but outer space too !
Seen from space, the Earth’s atmosphere is incredibly thin, like a slight haze around the planet. But the atmosphere has several different layers that scientists have identified; from the thick atmosphere that we breathe to the tenuous exosphere that extends out thousands of kilometers from the Earth. Let’s take a look at the different atmosphere layers.
Scientists have identified 5 distinct layers of the atmosphere, starting with the thickest near the surface, and then thinning out until it eventually merges with space.
The troposphere is the first layer above the surface of the Earth, and it contains 75% of the Earth’s atmosphere, and 99% of its water. Breathe in, that’s the troposphere. The average depth of the troposphere is about 17 km high. It gets deeper in the tropical regions, up to 20 km, and then shallower near the Earth’s poles – down to 7 km thick. Temperature and pressure are at the their highest at sea level, and then decrease with altitude. The troposphere is also where we experience weather.
The next atmosphere layer is the stratosphere, extending above the troposphere to an altitude of 51 km. Unlike the troposphere, temperature actually increases with height. Commercial airlines will typically fly in the stratosphere because it’s very stable; above weather, and allows them to optimize burning jet fuel. You might be surprised to know that bacterial life survives in the stratosphere.
Above that is the mesosphere, which starts at about 50-85 km above the Earth’s surface and extends up to an altitude of 80-90 km. Temperatures decrease the higher you go in the mesosphere, reaching a low of -100 °C, depending on the latitude and season.
Next comes the thermosphere. This region starts around 90 km above the Earth and goes up to about 320 and 380 km. The International Space Station orbits within the thermosphere. This is the region of the atmosphere where ultraviolet radiation causes ionization, and we can see auroras. Temperatures in the thermosphere can actually reach 2,500 °C; however, it wouldn’t feel warm because the atmosphere is so thin.
The 5th and final layer of the Earth’s atmosphere is the exosphere. This starts above the thermosphere and extends out for hundreds and even thousands of kilometers. Air molecules in this region can travel for hundreds of kilometers without bouncing into another particle.