SPACE pioneers Alex Baker and Chris Rose are about to boldly go where they’ve never gone before – by helping the general public to reach for the stars, as The Star’s digital editor Graham Walker exclusively discovered
IT’S over 40-years since Neil Armstrong took one small step and became the first man to walk on the moon.
We’ve since had the launch of the Hubble telescope, the Space Shuttle programme and un-manned explorers sent to Mars.
All of it the right stuff.
But nothing to truly satisfy the out-of-this-world dreams of space fans who for decades have wanted to explore the universe for themselves.
Nothing that is, until now.
University of Sheffield students Alex Baker and Chris Rose amazed the world when they recorded breathtaking video pictures of the Earth from high in the atmosphere last year using home-made equipment, at a cost of just £350.
They used a helium-filled balloon to send a foam box containing two small video cameras and a GPS tracker into near space.
Tomorrow they’ll do it all over again – this time launching a more hi-tech ‘space balloon’ from the roof of Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum, as part of the university’s Festival of the Mind, celebrating a collaboration of art, science, ideas and culture. Then comes their biggest launch of all – a business to sell their space-programme-in-a-box to the public.
It might sound like the latest James Bond mission, but from an entry-level £250 this ultimate gadget will allow every budding spaceman and woman to do what Captain James T Kirk has been telling us for years... to explore the final frontier.
SkyPod NS (Near Space) should be on sale before the end of the year, blasting it to the top of every space fan’s Christmas wish list.
It will be much like the duo’s first headline-grabbing space explorer, consisting of a helium-filled balloon to send up a foam box with a video camera, a GPS tracker and a parachute.
Their maiden voyage is believed to have reached an altitude of 22 miles before the parachute brought the equipment back to Earth, touching down in a Cambridgeshire field more than 100 miles away.
The two space fanatics tracked its progress on a GPS device, which responded to a phone call by texting back its coordinates. They found it back on Earth using a map to pinpoint its exact location on their iPhone.
You could have been forgiven for thinking the stunning images of the curvature of the earth they recorded were produced by a hi-tech Nasa telescope or a Hollywood special effects company. But the amazing pictures came from a £45 High Definition camera stuck into a foam box with sticky tape and floated up into the atmosphere on a balloon.
PhD mechanical engineering students Alex, aged 27, and Chris, 26, now in their final year, have decided to turn their studies into a business after they were inundated with requests from people wanting to know how to make their own home-made space explorer.
They recently shared their expertise with pupils from Sheffield High School during a science and engineering lesson, capturing more amazing images on a two-hour flight.
Their balloon projects earned them a Global Creativity award, presented to them by Nobel Prize winner Sir Harry Kroto.
And the young entrepreneurs are far from done with space travels.
Their latest space balloon, which goes up, up and away tomorrow around 2pm, will be more state-of-the-art, with equipment to measure it’s journey in more detail.
It has three video cameras on board – one looking sideways, another pointing down and the other up.
Their ultimate launch, of course, would be a manned flight into space – from Sheffield.
“We would love to do something like that. We have big ambitions. Start small, I suppose but we wouldn’t rule anything out at this point,’’ said Chris.
“We had such a positive response from our first launch and our YouTube video, called How To Film The Earth From Space, we decided we wanted to enable people, including anyone without any specialist knowledge, to be able to send up a balloon for themselves.
“It’s exciting sending something up into space, capturing these majestic images – the blackness of space, the curvature of the Earth. It’s an experience, including having to find it then taking it home and seeing just what result you’ve been able to obtain.
“We needed to make sure this was a very intuitive, easy-to-do process. Anyone can now do this on a budget.”
When the balloon goes up tomorrow it will also have a very unusual cargo – the individual words of a prize-wining poem about space, which will be scattered across the stratosphere when the balloon bursts.
British poet Simon Armitage, the university’s Professor of Poetry, has picked a winner, yet to be announced.
Alex explained: “There’s been a poetry competition running in the background with a theme of space and the winning poem will be sent into near space by us tomorrow.
“The balloon bursts plenty high enough to see the curvature of the Earth. You see the thin blue line of the atmosphere and you can see the blackness of space during the day. A parachute brings the payload safely to Earth, where we can track it and get all the footage.
“We’re using a big balloon, this time with all sorts of cameras and tracking systems on board.
“It’ll be going up about five metres per second, which isn’t rocket acceleration, but enough so that the entire flight time will be around two and a half to three hours.
“It’s got to survive some quite extreme conditions.”
For more visit the pair’s website at www.sentintospace.com. You can follow the balloon’s progress and latest news from the duo on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SentIntoSpace, on Twitter @Sent_into_space and on You Tube by searching for How to film the Earth from space.