You don't always need an expensive professional dSLR to capture awe-inspiring images. Sometimes, a basic Canon A470 point and shoot, a little ingenuity, and a beer cooler are all you need. That is what two M.I.T. students used to capture images of the Earth from space, well, actually the upper atmosphere; technically, it wasn't high enough to be space.
Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh, M.I.T. students, had a goal of flying a camera high enough to photograph the curvature of the earth, they named it Project Icarus. With out having a NASA size budget for a rocket, they opted for the more cost effective method of filling a weather balloon with helium and suspending a Styrofoam cooler underneath that held the camera. They also placed some instant hand warmers inside the cooler to try to keep the camera and its battery from freezing.
The balloon was launched from Sturbridge, Mass., on September 2, 2009. The University of Wisconsin maintains a balloon trajectory Web site that they used to try to determine where it might land. A GPS-enabled prepaid cell phone was placed in the cooler to let them track its return to Earth and to locate it after landing, a fairly low-tech but creative and effective navigation system.
The camera and balloon made it to 93,000 feet, high enough to see the curvature of the Earth. So high, that the cooler took 40 minutes to return to earth. It is around this altitude that a balloon will pop, allowing the rig to fall back to earth. The Canon A470 camera was hacked with the Canon Hackers Development Kit that modifies the firmware to add features such as an intervalomter. They set the intervalometer to shoot a photo every five seconds; an 8GB memory card gave them enough storage capacity to hold all of the images from the five hour flight.
Their project's total cost for everything was $148, cheap enough anyone could try it. The students say they will soon make available step-by-step instructions for their space camera project. Check out the project Web site for more information.