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Originally published September 15, 2009 at 10:19 AM | Page modified September 15, 2009 at 10:13 PM

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Bellevue grad, MIT student uses helium balloon to capture near-space photos

Oliver Yeh hopes his low-budget experiment in near-space photography will inspire other students. But the Federal Aviation Administration says future flights need a check-in with the FAA.

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

When he launched a cheap digital camera into the stratosphere with a weather balloon, a styrofoam cooler and disposable hand warmers, former Bellevue student Oliver Yeh hoped his low-budget experiment in near-space photography would inspire other students to do the same.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, and 2006 graduate of Bellevue's Newport High, got some stunning photos of the Earth from an estimated 93,000 feet — about 17.5 miles high, far above the cruising altitude of commercial airplanes.

But was it legal?

After poring over Yeh's Web site and studying the regulations, the Federal Aviation Administration concluded that the experiment did appear to meet federal rules because the balloon's payload was under four pounds, said FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer.

But anyone planning a future flight should call the federal agency first, Kenitzer said.

Yeh and fellow MIT student Justin Lee of Texas are not the first people to have photographed the Earth using helium-filled weather balloons. But Yeh says his project is ground-breaking because it used $150 worth of off-the-shelf components, and no hardware-hacking was required.

In other words, it's something that could be replicated by high-school science classes.

Before they launched the balloon, Yeh said they read the FAA regulations regarding unmanned balloons and came to the conclusion that if their payload was under 4 pounds, "basically, it's unregulated." But Kenitzer, with the FAA, said if the balloon had sailed into restricted air space, or landed in a populated area or in traffic, the two college students could have been in trouble.

Yeh became interested in aerial photography while taking a class at MIT in strobe photography. For one of his projects, he bought a weather balloon and photographed the ground from 2,000 feet up while the balloon was tethered with fishing line.

One thing led to another. Yeh wondered: What if I release the balloon?

He and fellow student Lee realized it was more complicated than that. For one thing, they would need to get the camera back, so they had to be able to track the package after the balloon popped and a parchute unfolded, bringing it back to earth. A prepaid cell phone did the trick, sending back GPS information on location.

And because temperatures in the stratosphere can easily reach -40 C, they would need to keep the camera warm or its batteries would fail.

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So Yeh and Lee designed an insulated package, using a styrofoam container, disposable hand-warmers and four lithium batteries.

The students dubbed their venture Project Icarus after the Greek myth about a man who flew too close to the sun. After they launched the balloon in Sturbridge, Mass., on Sept. 2, it remained visible for almost an hour before disappearing into the blue. About four hours after it vanished, they got a signal from the cell phone: The balloon had landed in Worcester, 20 miles away.

"We were really afraid it would land in a lake, and we'd have to swim out to get it," Yeh said. The styrofoam box hit the ground at a construction site. Yeh and Lee were amazed by the photos, which show the earth and stratosphere, the coastline of Massachusetts and the popped balloon as the package sailed back to Earth.

Yeh and Lee have pulled out all the stops to publicize their achievement, including a Web page, stories on CNN's citizen reporting network, iReport, and items on technology-based Web sites such as Slashdot and Wired. "I feel like half the work was trying to do the PR," Yeh said.

MIT professor Jim Bales, who teaches the class in strobe photography that inspired Yeh, helped buy helium for the project. He said he's looking forward to supervising Yeh in more balloon photography as part of his undergraduate advanced project. Yeh graduates this December, and is majoring in computer science and electrical engineering.

The claims by Yeh and Lee that it was the cheapest such aerial experiment prompted a lively discussion on their own Web site, http://space.1337arts.com/, including naysayers who pointed to similar projects by students in Great Britain and Spain. Others questioned the wisdom of sending a helium balloon containing electronics high above the Earth.

But plenty of the commenters were impressed.

"CONGRATULATIONS FROM BRASIL, VERY GEEK!" wrote somebody named Marcelo.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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