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Up, up and away ... to see the shuttle

The shuttle Endeavour leaves behind an arcing plume of exhaust in this picture, captured on Monday by the Senatobia-1 balloon from an altitude of 64,000 feet.
The shuttle Endeavour leaves behind an arcing plume of exhaust in this picture, captured on Monday by the Senatobia-1 balloon from an altitude of 64,000 feet.Quest for Stars / Challenger Center / CSE

The hundreds of thousands of spectators who turned out to watch the shuttle Endeavour's final launch on Monday could see it for only a matter of seconds before the spaceship plowed through a cloud bank, but a camera-equipped balloon built by students captured plenty of pictures of Endeavour's ascent from 64,000 feet.

The Senatobia-1 balloon experiment — organized by Quest for Stars, the Challenger Center for Space Science Education and the Coalition for Space Exploration — followed up on a similar operation that tracked Discovery's last launch in February. In the picture above, you can see Endeavour's plume of exhaust as the shuttle arcs spaceward.

The balloon was sent up from Beverly Hills, Fla., hours in advance of Endeavour's launch, and took video with an array of high-definition digital cameras as it ascended. Even after the launch pictures were taken, Senatobia-1 continued to rise until it reached an altitude of 95,000 feet. Then the balloon popped and the payload parachuted back to Earth, its location tracked via GPS signals. Searchers found the payload stuck up in a tree in a nursery in Pierson, Fla., 130 miles from the launch site.

"This time we were sitting there waiting for it," Quest for Stars spokesman Bobby Russell told me today.

Senatobia-1 is named after the community in Mississippi that suggested "Endeavour" as the name for NASA's youngest shuttle, which was built as a shuttle fleet replacement after the 1986 Challenger tragedy. Yet another connection to Endeavour was included as part of the balloon payload: a list of signatures from students in Senatobia, wishing a speedy recovery to wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the wife of Endeavour commander Mark Kelly.

A shuttle launch costs hundreds of millions of dollars, but Senatobia-1's launch cost much less. "For under five grand you could do basically what we did," Russell said.

He said additional videos and still imagery would be made available via the Quest for Stars website, Twitpic gallery, Facebook page and YouTube page this week. Here's a sample from today, showing the payload's freefall:

Next up is a balloon launch from the San Diego area, scheduled for next week, and then comes the big summer project: construction of the "Strato-Shuttle," a balloon-borne unmanned aerial vehicle with a 5- to 6-foot wingspan. The idea is that the balloon rises up to an altitude of more than 120,000 feet, and then releases the UAV to fly back to earth under remote control. Russell is recruiting student interns and plans to test the system in Mojave, Calif. — the same locale where the pros are working on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo and XCOR Aerospace's Lynx.

"That's the next generation," Russell said.

More amazing views from on high:

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