In April this year, KiwiSpace launched a helium-filled balloon to the 'edge of space' as part of our launch celebrations and the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight. This was a lot of fun, and resulted in some stunning photos being captured by the onboard camera. However the goal was always to go much further than this.

KiwiSpace has always wanted to develop an educational space balloon programme - providing students the opportunity to fly experiments to near-space and get involved with the process. This idea has been idling for a while, but we're keen to see if we can get this program underway, and need your help.

Our concept is quite fluid, and will depend a lot on what great ideas people come up with the for programme – but the base concept is something along the following lines:

Initial Concept

  • KiwiSpace would develop and launch a balloon, likely from somewhere in the Waikato plains (we have members within driving distance, and we need a 'wide' section of NZ to avoid losing the balloon in the sea)
  • The balloon would carry a core logistics payload of tracking equipment and cameras
  • Additional experiment payloads could be suspended beneath this primary payload
    • These payloads wouldn't need to deal with any tracking functions, as the core payload would handle that
    • These payloads could potentially be a larger experiment payload, or perhaps clusters of smaller items such as 'pongsats'

So the plan would be to have students or institutions develop an experiment payload, send it into us, and we'd then launch it. The experiments would then be returned to the students for analysis ... assuming the balloon is recovered (which is an unfortunate risk).

In a perfect world, we'd like to get students involved with the 'chase' – the tracking and recovery of the balloon, but there are a number of problems with that unfortunately: Launch windows depend primarily on the weather. This can be difficult to predict, as it's the high-altitude winds which are important (not whether it's a sunny day). The launch team would likely need to respond with a day-or-two's 'preliminary notice', and then ultimately get a final go-ahead at around 2am on launch day... If all goes well, we'd launch at say 6-8am, and recover by noon. But it could go much longer, if the balloon lands in difficult terrain. And all of this, to me, makes it difficult to plan student/class involvement. That said, we can certainly provide online tracking.

The experiments

My current thinking is that we determine a standard 'payload' specification, along the lines of a 'Pongsat'.

This PongSat combines temperature, vibration, tilt and light sensors.

While small, it is possible to cram a reasonable amount of electronics into the size. But it is also possible to perform non-electronic experiments, such as:

  • Whether a marshmallow puffs up in the vacuum of near-space
  • What effect cosmic rays have on the growth of plant seeds
  • Film cosmic ray experiment: Undeveloped film will often contain white streaks when developed after exposed to cosmic rays at high altitude
  • Twin-pongsats: one beeps, the other listens. Sound can be used to determine altitude
  • And there will be many more...

The pongsats, as they are self-contained could potentially just be suspended in a netted bag (for maximum atmospheric exposure), or in a separate insulated container.

In addition to this, custom experiments could be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Weight will ultimately be a deciding factor – the heavier the combined experiments, the slower the rise of the platform, or the need to go to a larger balloon - and much higher costs (helium is very expensive, although we are investigating hydrogen-fill as an option).

What are your thoughts?

So what do you think about this project concept?

  • We'd love to hear from teachers who would be interested in participating in this type of program
  • Are there any cool experiment ideas people can propose?
  • Are there any good curriculum linkages we can emphasise?
  • Is anyone interested in helping join a team to get this idea 'off the ground'?
  • And as always, we'd love to hear from anyone who may be prepared to help in a financial capacity – especially if someone knows how to get free/sponsored helium!

Mark Mackay
Executive Director,
KiwiSpace Foundation.

BLB named "rising star"

NZ-originated company BigLittleBang has been named a 'rising star' in the Deloitte Fast 50 awards.

BigLittleBang featured in the 2011 World Space Week celebrations, and includes space-themed education areas for children to explore in a gaming environment. shoots for the stars!, (11 Nov 2011) is a safe online game that enables kids to be creative with music regardless of their musical background. Its objective is to encourage children of all ages to explore music via gaming in a 3D animated, futuristic space environment. Users can create their own unique avatar on the site, explore “planets” and make music with others online in real time. The site also offers a wide variety of safe social networking features.

Check out the website for more information:

I'm a bit behind on my space-news blogging, but here's a cool activity that occurred earlier in the year in Hamilton:

Hillcrest High blasts competition at Waikato engineering day, (1 July 2011)

A huge crowd gathered at the University of Waikato this week to witness the launching of homemade water bottle rockets made by local secondary school students.
School teams were challenged to design and build a water bottle rocket that would travel the greatest distance horizontally, using only a 1.5 litre bottle, plastic and cardboard, a limit of 80psi of pressure, and some imagination.

I personally would like to see a nationwide Water Rocket Competition in New Zealand, after seeing how engaged students were at the APRSAF-17 competition last year. This is one of KiwiSpace' incubator projects, so hopefully we'll be able to organise one next year. If anyone is interested helping out, please do Contact Us

CanSats are tiny satellites, built to fit in the same space as a soda-can. UNISEC is running a free* training program in Japan later this year, to train people on how to build and teach building of these ingenious devices

The 2nd CanSat Leader Training Program (CLTP2) will be held
from November 14 to December 14, 2011, at the Department of
Aerospace Engineering, Nihon University, Chiba, Japan. (From
December 10 to 14, the venue will be Kitakyushu
International Conference Center, Japan.) This program is
organized by Nihon University and the University Space
Engineering Consortium (UNISEC).

The deadline for applications to the program is July 11,
2011. No tuition fee is required to participate in the
program. Further, limited funding is available for
participation, including funding for local accommodation,
local transportation, and round-trip air tickets (most
economical, direct flight route) between your home country
and Japan. For further information, including the
application form, program contents, and eligibility, please
visit the following UNISEC website:

The first CLTP was successfully held in February-March 2011
in Wakayama University, targeting researchers and educators,
with 12 participants from 10 countries, namely, Algeria,
Australia, Egypt, Guatemala, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Sri
Lanka, Turkey, and Vietnam.

Mark Note: I would suggest that any senior teachers at secondary schools, wanting to use this for students in their final year, get in contact with UNISEC. They may be willing to open this beyond University researchers for the right person.

Over 4 terrabytes of images covering the entire planet have been released to the public by ESRI and to US Department of the Interior, providing almost 40 years of data to researchers.

Esri and DOI Introduce Landsat Data for the World, (3 May 2011)

Working in close collaboration with the US Department of the Interior (DOI), Esri is pleased to announce the release of Landsat image services. These provide access to almost four decades' worth of Global Land Survey (GLS) Landsat data developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and DOI's US Geological Survey. Esri provides access to the full multispectral, multitemporal Landsat data for free on ArcGIS Online as dynamic image services.

Check out the website for more information:

iPhones in space!

First iPhones in Space Launching on Last Shuttle Mission, (10 June 2011)

Two iPhone 4 smartphones loaded with an app to help astronauts perform experiments in space will launch aboard NASA's shuttle Atlantis on July 8. They will be the first iPhones to fly in space, officials say.

Mark's Comments: All I can say is, finally! Sure, Androids and iPhones have gone up in rockets and balloon, but that's low altitude. We finally get to see some decent technology floating around the space station, not the boring looking IBM ThinkPads. Yes, I'm definitely a apple-fan.

Now what they really need of course is the iPad. Every decent sci-fi movie since Star Trek has had crew members walking around the spaceship or space station with an iPad-like device.

But they'll be doing real experiments with the iPhones. A number of applications have been built to test gyroscopes, use the camera for navigation, etc. So it's not all fun. Although you do have to wonder if along with the 'official apps' they also have a copy of Angry Birds installed on there, or the Space Shuttle Landing simulator ... although that obviously has limited value now. I wonder if they do get to play games in their down-time? I bet the number of tweets would go up substantially. Maybe some planking in space photos?

According to the article, the iPhones will be returning to earth on a Soyuz later in the year. But you seriously have to wonder whether the astronauts will want to keep them.

I wonder if there is potential to have the iPhones become more of a standard experiment platform? You can imagine for life-science data collection it would be great, especially if you pair it with sensors along the Nike Sport Kit. Perhaps students could design apps that have literally a few days of experimental use.

Turbid waters surround NZ

This stunning image was acquired by NASA's Aqua satellite, capturing New Zealand in spectacular colour, surrounded by clouds.

Turbid Waters Surround New Zealand, NASA Earth Observatory (2011-05-28)

Runoff from heavy rains, combined with wave action along the coast, increased the turbidity of New Zealand’s waters when this image was acquired on April 29, 2011. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this view of sediment flowing in the Pacific Ocean.

Download full-size image (20MB).

Here's an article about a project a few friends of mine are involved with over in Australia. Because, everyone needs broadband...

Antarctica to get satellite broadband, ABC Science (2011-05-12)

The project aims to serve the growing output of research communities working in the Australian Antarctic Territories, says Antarctic Broadband project manager Michael Brett.
Current communications in the Antarctic are patchy and insufficient for the needs of the research community, says Brett.

Check out the project website:

Kiwi found in outer space

This is an old article I recently found, but I thought i'd share the image, which I think is kinda pretty:

Kiwi found in outer space NZ Herald, 2009-09-28

An astrophotographer has discovered a Kiwi in outer space from New Zealand's internationally renowned Mt John Observatory.

It may be 26,000 light years away, but a high powered astro-photograph has picked up the distinct image of New Zealand's national icon in the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Update - 11 June 2011: I received an email from a colleague that informed me that Fraser Gunn was not the first to discover this image, but rather that the first person to name the kiwi was Ian Cooper around the year 2000.

Carter Observatory in Wellington commissioned John Drummond to produce a photograph for one of their exhibits. It was also featured in 'Milky Way Kiwi' magazine, published on 25 September 2009.

I was lured in by a "must see keynote" headline on a blog I followed, and ultimately ended up watching and thoroughly enjoying this fantastic keynote, presented by Jeff Greason at the ISDC 2011 Conference just recently:

Mark's comments:
I have to say, that while he is clearly pushing off-world colonisation, I really enjoyed his analysis of NASA's current strategy and his recommendations.

I personally feel that it is flawed to have any one nation pursue a colonisation strategy, and that somehow we need to change the conversation so that it becomes a 'planetary goal'. Having that built into each space-faring nation's strategic goals would make sense, and it would be far more viable, productive, and cost-effective than any one country trying to go it alone, for glory or national supremacy. It is very unlikely that a trade-route to an off-world destination will be cost-effective for a single country (although some asteroids do hold the potential to change this), but providing a "backup for humanity" in a second habitat does make sense.

Copenhagen Suborbitals successfully launched their rocket HEAT-1X on Friday 3 June at 4:32pm (CEST, 2:32am NZST). The rocket reached an altitude of approximately 2.5km, lower than hoped, but proved the amateur rocket builders are on the right track.

The rocket is designed to carry a single person into space and back, giving them a great view of the trip from a dome on the rocket's nose. This first test launch carried a 50%-weight dummy, and had hoped to reach 10 miles high. According to early reports, the motor was shut off by remote control as the rocket began to veer off course. The rocket was recovered, but suffered minor damage due to the main parachute not fully opening.

The vehicle was launched from a floating platform, which was towed by the group's private submarine, to a location off the Baltic island of Bornholm.

Despite not achieving all the goals, this launch is a triumph for the amateur group, which cost around $70,000, been funded by sponsorship and donations.

News coverage:

Video of the launch (5min)

Extended Video of the launch (11min)

(Limited English voiceovers).

Jetpack creator's new high, NZ Herald (29 May 2011)

... the flight near Ashburton was piloted by remote control, with a crash-test dummy in the pilot's position. The machine flew to 5000 feet, then down to about 2000 feet before firing a rocket-propelled parachute. From there it sailed safely to the ground without damage.

Martin Jetpack 5000ft flight - highlights, NZ Herald (29 May 2011)

Mark's note: This is a fine example of NZ ingenuity in the aerospace sector. And it runs on ordinary gas! I so want one of these once they come on the market...

Govt puts $9.3m into fresh water research, NZ Herald (1 June 2011)

The money is going into two research projects.

One will pioneer techniques for understanding groundwater, such as satellite remote sensing and the use of seismic signals from earthquakes.

Govt backs fresh water research projects, National Party Website (1 June 2011)

Smart aquifer characterisation: Subject to satisfactory science peer review, the Crown research institute GNS Science has been awarded $1.2 million a year for six years to develop a suite of innovative methods for characterising and mapping New Zealand’s groundwater systems.
The research team will apply new methods to overcome the current problems of data acquisition that are time- and resource-consuming, and develop specialised skills in hydrogeology, geology, satellite remote sensing, geophysics, seismology, mathematics and spatial information technology.

Free-floating plants may be more common than stars, NASA (18 May 2011)

The discovery is based on a joint Japan-New Zealand survey that scanned the center of the Milky Way galaxy during 2006 and 2007, revealing evidence for up to 10 free-floating planets roughly the mass of Jupiter.

MOA, Microlensing Observation in Astrophysics – Canterbury University project page

I had the extreme fortune to view the last liftoff of Space Shuttle Endeavour from the Press site at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was an amazing experience to watch and feel the launch. The space shuttle is a spacecraft that has always fascinated me since it first was conceived, but I had never seen a launch in person. I attended as media, but for those keen, NASA is giving 150 people a chance to get this same prime viewing spot, and much more:

Some of my pictures taken at KSC for the Endeavour/STS-134 launch a few weeks ago. Seth Green (centre photo) was one of the attendees at the Tweetup.

NASA is hosting a two-day Tweetup for 150 of its Twitter followers on 7-8 July, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Space Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to make its final flight at 11:40am on July 8 – the very last space shuttle launch, ever.

What's a Tweetup?
It's basically a gathering of people who use the social networking site, Twitter. But for lucky folk who attend NASA's Tweetup, it's an opportunity to meet and mingle with Astronauts, NASA personnel and experience one of the greatest spectacles from the closest viewing spot to the launch pad.

NASA held a Tweetup for the STS-134 launch, and while I didn't get to check it out first-hand, I managed to talk to a few of the Tweeps attending, and they had an absolute blast. They had a pre-planned schedule of talks from NASA employees and astronauts, were given tours of the various facilities, etc. And of course the got to tweet their experiences for the rest of the world to share.

Registration for the NASA Tweetup – June 2nd

See the following page NASA to Host Tweetup at Final Space Shuttle Launch in Florida for full details, but there is only a 24-hour window to register, from Noon on June 1 to noon June 2 (I am presuming EDT).

In New Zealand timezone, this would be: Thursday 2 June, 4am .... Friday 3 June, 4am.

You need to fly there, etc - but this opportunity should not be missed!

All New Zealander Tweeps should apply!
Given my own experiences, I cannot impress enough that any New Zealand user of twitter, with even an passing interest in space should apply. You need to pay for flights and accommodation, but this is the last ever shuttle launch, and so you don't want to miss out. And you get so much more than just a launch - backstage viewing of NASA's Kennedy Space Center, etc.

I've just spent 3.5 weeks at KSC for STS-134, and am seriously considering going back to see the final launch!