Build Your Own Space Camera

Household items can give NASA a run for their money

The picture you see may look like it was taken by something built by NASA, but Southern California resident Eric Madigan will make you reconsider the things lying around your house.

"I can't believe it actually worked," he says when talking about the camera he sent 25 miles up above the surface of San Diego County.

It turns out; Madigan's space camera is nothing more than an inexpensive digital camera, Styrofoam cooler, cell phone, and weather balloon.  In all it cost him about $200 to build.

"You could use Tupperware, if you wanted, I suppose," said Madigan.

Madigan's project was based off an experiment by a team of MIT students last year.  It's something scientists say is becoming much more common as the size and price of technology decreases.

"It's profoundly less expensive," says Eric Frost with SDSU's Viz Lab.

Frost says you can fill a trash bag with helium, tie it to a string, attach a digital camera and you can make your own aerial photographs.

"And then you do a really simple thing, just walk the balloon," Frost said.

In fact, that's how Frost and a team from the lab photographed SDSU's campus from 1500 feet in the air and he says these kinds of tools have a lot of real world, cost effective uses.  His team designed a remote control airplane with an inexpensive digital camera that has helped out on search and rescues all over the country, including the efforts for Chelsea King and Amber Dubois.

"It's not just looking for where's the body," he said. "But it's also where are there trails, how would you get in there, do we need horses?"

Frost says the balloons and remote control planes can be used in wildfires because they can fly in conditions too dangerous for helicopters or other aircraft without the risk to human life.  He also says after the gulf oil spill, balloons with cameras attached were towed behind boats to get an inexpensive and real time aerial assessment of the damage.

"It's nearly free, but highly effective," says Frost.

Eric Madigan used the cell phone's GPS to find the camera after it came crashing down into a remote area of the desert away from any people or homes, on purpose.

"But contact the FAA. Make sure they ok your flight," Madigan said.

On its website, the FAA has a list of regulations you must follow if you're trying something like this.

As for Eric Madigan, he doesn't plan to sell those photographs and at that price, he can afford to just give them away.

"I'm really happy with the way they turned out," he said. "They're great pictures."

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