Washington: A do-it-yourself space program is gearing up to return to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, floating above the world and the boundary between the sky and stars.
All manner of payloads, a majority of them contained in ping pong balls created by students from all over the globe, will be carried by a series of weather balloons later this month.
“This mission is getting pretty huge,” John Powell, president of JP Aerospace in Cordova, California, said.
“We’re flying 1,600 PongSats, six MiniCubes, three high-altitude advertisements, two TV commercials and three weddings! Not actually weddings, but proposals … a dedicated ring-bearing vehicle and another set of rings and wedding favours,” he said.
Seven vehicles are to be let loose September 29, five of them to 100,000 feet and two to 120,000 feet. That means the two highest flying vehicles will be released 22 miles above Earth. The flights will lift off from the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
First liftoff of the day starts at 7:30 a.m. local time.
“We hope to get one in the air every 30 minutes,” Powell told SPACE.com.
“We’re shooting for getting in-flight images from one vehicle to another. We’ve managed it once before … just a white spot in the distance, though,” he said.
There are about 3,000 direct participants, Powell said.
“We’re getting PongSats from all over the world. They’re coming in from Poland, India, Japan, Slovenia, Germany, Belgium, Turkey, China, Australia, Indonesia, and even very exotic places like Sacramento, California. We’re getting a lot of computer-driven PongSats this time,” he said.
A PongSat is an experiment that fits inside of a cut-in-half, then-taped- together table tennis ball. These ping pong ball “satellites” are flown to the edge of space by balloon, recovered and returned to the student, along with video, data, pictures and a certificate stating they have flown.
PongSats are flown at no cost to the student or school.
Each of the weather balloons totes skyward a “high rack” made of foam and carbon fibre. A high rack can carry 500 PongSats.
Telemetry links to the high racks enable tracking of the vehicles during the flight. At the end of each flight, the balloon is released and the high rack descends by parachute.
The PongSats experience near-vacuum, cosmic rays, temperatures of 90 degrees below zero and, on the way down, zero gravity.
“We land anywhere from 20 to 200 miles away from the launch site. After landing, the recovery teams with four-wheel-drive vehicles head out across the Sierra Nevada mountains to bring the high racks back,” Powell added.