Science

Photos From Space: An interview with Adam Cudworth

This magnificent photo depicting the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space was taken in August this year. What may surprise you is that this is one of a sequence of photos captured not by a NASA satellite, but by University of Nottingham student Adam Cudworth, and not using millions of pounds worth of equipment, but a camera bought for £30 from eBay.

Economics student Adam had the idea for his project after hearing about a similar story a couple of years ago: “I set myself the challenge to do a similar project and capture even better photos”.

Since then, Adam has been working on the HABE project (High Altitude Balloon Experiment), and in 2011 he made his first launch. HABE1 had a successful flight, but Adam was left disappointed: “The camera failed to take any photos after shutting down once the startup routine had been run – a mistake I wouldn’t make again!”

Four experiments later, the launch of HABE5 returned hundreds of incredible photos, which have been reported in newspapers and magazines the world over.

Even more impressive is that the photos were achieved on a budget of £200. The second hand £30 camera was carried in an insulated box also containing a radio, temperature sensors, solar panels and a radio tracker, built by Adam himself. The helium-inflated balloon used to fly the device is similar to those used by the Met Office for weather monitoring.

At the altitude the camera was to reach – 33km above Earth – temperatures dip to -60°C. Maintaining performance of equipment in these conditions was one of many challenges Adam faced. “When I initially started out there were a huge number of questions in my mind: how hard will it be to convince the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) to allow me to fly this? Where is it going to land?”

The radio tracker was at the crux of a number of problems. Even if the launch was successful and the camera worked without fault, Adam needed to find and retrieve the balloon after landing to get hold of the photographs. Tracking the balloon wasn’t quite as simple as installing a SatNav: “Many GPS modules stop working at 18km in altitude, to prevent their use in inter-continental missiles.”

The launch of HABE5 has been covered by the media worldwide, but Adam remains modest: “It’s just a hobby on the side.” His only assistance was from the UK High Altitude Society (UKHAS), a group of around 10 people working on similar projects who shared advice and information on the launch of high altitude projects.

Adam’s device was recovered in a farmer’s field, 30 miles from the launch site near his home in Worcestershire. The balloon burst at around 33km above the Earth, near the edge of space, before hurtling to the ground at speeds of up to 150mph.

We asked Adam how he felt when he saw the pictures HABE5 had taken. “To put it simply – wow. I knew similar photos were possible but actually obtaining them yourself makes them seem even better. At last, the conditions were right and everything worked as it should.”

This isn’t the last we’ll see of the HABE project: Adam is currently working on an Autonomous Return Glider to attach to his device, which should automatically glide back to a predetermined site when the balloon bursts. “The only thing that is currently holding me back is the CAA’s rules and regulations… hopefully I can get them on board and carry out some tests – it’s a work in progress!”

Steph Harris

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