Project Icarus (photography)

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Project Icarus refers to two unrelated projects at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1967 and 2009.


The first "Project Icarus" was conducted in the spring of 1967. It was an assignment by Professor Paul Sandorff for a group of MIT graduate students to design a way to deflect an Apollo asteroid, 1566 Icarus, found to be on a collision course with planet Earth, using rockets.[1][2][3]

In the course of their study the students visited the Kennedy Space Center, Florida where they were so impressed with the Vertical Assembly Building that they wrote of "the awesome reality" that had "completely erased" their doubts over using the technology associated with the Apollo program and Saturn rockets.[4]

This later served as the basis for the 1979 film Meteor.[3][5]


The second "Project Icarus" was an experiment in 2009 to launch a camera into the stratosphere undertaken by MIT students, Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh.[6]

The launch vehicle consisted of a weather balloon filled with helium and a styrofoam beer cooler that hung underneath the balloon. Inside the cooler was a Canon A470 compact camera, hacked using the Canon Hacker’s Development Kit open-source firmware to shoot pictures in five second intervals. To keep the temperature of the batteries high enough for the camera to work it was heated by instant hand warmers. In order to keep track of the vehicle's location a prepaid GPS-equipped cellphone was included.[6]

The launch occurred in Sturbridge, Massachusetts at 11:45 am on September 2, 2009. The device traveled to around 93,000 feet (28 km) before free falling back to earth. It was eventually recovered in Worcester, Massachusetts. The mission was a success, and the pictures were retrieved. The project cost only $148.[6]

"We looked at these photographs and thought wow, these are beautiful—this is artwork," said Lee. "This inspired us to sit down and really think deep about the relationships between science and art."[7]

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the launch was legal because the payload was under 4 pounds (1.8 kg). However, they advised anyone interested in a future launch to contact the federal agency beforehand.[8]

The MIT students were not the first to take pictures of the earth using helium balloons, but this experiment is noteworthy because it used inexpensive consumer products and did not require specialized hardware.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kleiman Louis A., Project Icarus: an MIT Student Project in Systems Engineering, Cambridge, Massachusetts : MIT Press, 1968
  2. ^ "Systems Engineering: Avoiding an Asteroid", Time Magazine, June 16, 1967.
  3. ^ a b Day, Dwayne A., "Giant bombs on giant rockets: Project Icarus", The Space Review, Monday, July 5, 2004
  4. ^ David S. F. Portree. "MIT Saves the World: Project Icarus (1967)". Wired Science. Retrieved 21 October 2013. 
  5. ^ "MIT Course precept for movie", The Tech, MIT, October 30, 1979
  6. ^ a b c The $150 Space Camera: MIT Students Beat NASA On Beer-Money Budget, Wired, September 15, 2009
  7. ^ MIT Students Take Space Photos on $150 Budget -
  8. ^ a b Bellevue grad, MIT student uses helium balloon to capture near-space photos, Seattle Times

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