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Originally published June 9, 2010 at 7:51 PM | Page modified June 9, 2010 at 9:29 PM

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Really high school project takes pictures from space

Two seniors from Aviation High School in Des Moines hoisted a cheap camera into the atmosphere using a helium-filled balloon and managed to capture photographs of the atmosphere from 20 miles above Earth.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Even the brightest high-school student might have a hard time with this one: How do you capture photographs of the atmosphere from 20 miles above Earth?

Two seniors from Aviation High School in Des Moines, Taylor Barrett and Alex Simkus, had a $350 answer. They hoisted a cheap camera into the atmosphere using a helium-filled balloon — the balloon and the helium were the bulk of the cost — and tracked it with a GPS so they could recover the digital photos wherever it landed.

The 1,418 photographs they retrieved show the ascent and descent of the balloon: brown and yellow Eastern Washington landscapes, the troughs and ridges of the day's cloud cover, the blue curve of the Earth from an estimated 100,000 feet, the spinning free-fall after the balloon burst and, finally, a field of dry grass near Highway 2.

Barrett and Simkus, both 18, did it all with everyday technology.

They shopped on eBay for a used Boost Mobile Motorola i290 phone — that became their GPS — and for a used Canon Powershot A470, their camera, which they modified to take a photograph every 10 seconds. They bought an 800-gram, latex meteorological balloon and canisters of helium to fill it. Everything else — the Styrofoam container, the hand warmers to keep the electronics functioning at low temperatures, batteries for the phone and camera — they had around the house.

Each year, seniors at Aviation High are required to undertake an open-ended "senior project." Planning begins in September in consultation with a faculty adviser, who gives the final go-ahead.

Taking photographs from near-space combined Simkus' interests in engineering and problem-solving with Barrett's interests in photography. The two were inspired by a similar experiment conducted by three MIT students last September.

Simkus and Barrett's results were due May 21, a Friday. The Monday before, the seniors still had nothing. A launch on May 11 had failed when strong winds blew their apparatus parallel to the ground.

"Basically, to graduate high school we had to pass this," Barrett said. "We had to make it work."

So on May 19, the two seniors cut school for their project. They had to, Barrett said, because the winds were right for the launch.

That Wednesday morning, Barrett left home in Burien in his Jeep at 2 a.m., swung by Normandy Park to pick up Simkus, drove four hours to a field just east of Ellensburg and began to prepare.

At about 6 a.m., all was ready. Simkus held on to the spherical balloon — roughly his height. All that prevented it from shooting into the sky was his firm grip.

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"I didn't want to let go," he said.

He did let go, but his hands shook even after the balloon had disappeared.

"The entire time, we were pretty nervous," Simkus said. "A lot of stuff had to go right."

They tracked the balloon live via the Internet until it landed at 10 a.m. near Jameson Lake in Douglas County — 61 miles northwest of their launch site.

Using a GPS tracker borrowed from a schoolmate, Barrett drove the Jeep toward the landing site. They exited Highway 2 onto a dirt road, continued off-road for about a mile and finally walked through a field to the balloon.

When they arrived, they found the camera with its photos from near-space.

"It was a climax of a ton of different moments," Barrett said. "We were like 4-year-olds."

They brought their results back on time, and their teachers approved; Simkus and Barrett will graduate next Thursday.

What's next?

Simkus has a scholarship to attend the Webb Institute, a marine-engineering college in New York; and Barrett will be a freshman at Washington State University.

Andrew Doughman: 206-464-3195 or adoughman@seattletimes.com

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