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 sky and stars.
All manner of payloads, a majority of them contained in ping pong balls (dubbed PongSats) 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,” said John Powell, president of JP Aerospace in Cordova, Calif. “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 favors.”
Seven vehicles are to be let loose Sept. 29, five of them to 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) and two to 120,000 feet (36,576 m). That means the two highest flying vehicles will be released 22 miles (36 kilometers) above Earth. The flights will lift off from the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. [Ping Pong Ball 'Satellites' to Edge of Space (Video)]
But exactly what is JP Aerospace?
“It’s simple,” Powell explained. “We are America’s other space program.”
All volunteer effort
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.”
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.”
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.
“JP Aerospace is an all-volunteer do-it-yourself space program. We have flown 6,440 PongSats so far,” Powell said.
This next round of balloon launches"will put us over 8,000 PongSats flown."
“It’s an easy and inexpensive way to get students excited about science and engineering,” Powell points out on his website. “There are endless possibilities for experiments that can fit inside a ping pong ball. PongSats can be as simple or complex as you want them to be.”
Powell said he’s always floored by what people put in their PongSats, ranging from plant seeds to full upper-atmospheric labs. Several small, inexpensive computers and other electronics can fit inside a PongSat.
“My favorite is the marshmallow. You put a marshmallow inside the pingpong ball. At 100,000 feet, the marshmallow puffs up, completely filling the ball. Then it freeze-dries. The student gets to hold in her hand the direct results of traveling to the top of the atmosphere.” [Earth's Atmosphere from Top to Bottom (Infographic)]