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More space shots for shuttle fans

Three PongSats are secured to a high-altitude balloon sent skyward by JP Aerospace.
Three PongSats are secured to a high-altitude balloon sent skyward by JP Aerospace.JP Aerospace

Hey, kids! Check out some newly released videos that make you feel as if you're blasting off with a space shuttle — and then plan your own high-flying mission.

Your journey begins with a half-hour-long series of videos that NASA released today, showing last Thursday's launch of the shuttle Discovery as recorded by cameras mounted on the craft's two solid-rocket boosters. The boosters are jettisoned along with the shuttle's external fuel tank during the ascent to orbit, and while the fuel tank burns up in the atmosphere, the boosters fall back down through the atmosphere, splash down into the Atlantic and are recovered for reuse.

The cameras are installed on the boosters to give the mission team a look at any potential damage that the orbiter might sustain during ascent. It takes a few days to recover the imagery, but the wait is worth it. Give a click to the video above and check it out for yourself.

The opening seconds show the view looking at the pad as Discovery blasts off, and at around the 2:25 mark, the boosters make a fiery separation from the space plane.

This half-hour show strings together several views from different perspectives. At the 15-minute mark, there's a really interesting video from the intertank camera: A contact microphone is hooked up to the booster, so you hear the rush of the engines, the whoosh of the tank pulling away, and the plunks of debris hitting the metal. After separation, you can see Earth spinning around through the frame and even catch sight of the shuttle's vapor trail. It takes several minutes for the booster to finish its free-fall. The chutes open at the 19:21 mark, and then there's the splashdown at 19:51. Glub!

Seeing the launch from on high

Meanwhile, another video gives you a sense of the view from high up — as high as 110,000 feet. We've already talked quite a bit about the Robonaut-1 high-altitude balloon launch, organized by the Quest for Stars educational program and the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. During the Discovery countdown, the student-led project released a balloon that was festooned with all sorts of video and photo gear.

Smart phones captured pictures of Discovery as it was ascending, and on Wednesday, project organizers released a snazzy music video that takes in a 360-degree view of the scene. Look closely and you'll see Discovery's plume as it fades away (at 0:35, 0:54, 1:16 and so on):

We've also mentioned the two YouTube video views of Discovery's ascent as seen from commercial airplanes. A colleague of mine here at, Martin McClellan, has used a mashup website called YouTube Doubler to pair the two clips so you can watch them simultaneously.

Time for another liftoff

So are you ready to put your own payload up into the air? Over the past nine years, California-based JP Aerospace has flown more than 3,400 "PongSats" to high altitudes on balloons or suborbital sounding rockets. PongSats are experimental packages that are built small enough to fit inside a ping pong ball. They could be as simple as a plant seed, or as complicated as an electronic sensor. John Powell, the founder of JP Aerospace, told me that his venture flies PongSats for free, as add-ons for missions that are aimed at developing cheaper ways to get to space.

"JP Aerospace carries the PongSats to 100,000 feet on floating platforms, where they experience 90-below-zero temperatures, vacuum, cosmic rays and zero gravity during the 20-mile fall at the end. After the mission, the PongSats are sent back to the students for research, experimenting and science fairs," Powell wrote in an e-mail.

Here's a picture that was taken from one of the balloons, showing three PongSats nestled in their rack:

Three PongSats are secured to a high-altitude balloon sent skyward by JP Aerospace.
Three PongSats are secured to a high-altitude balloon sent skyward by JP Aerospace.JP Aerospace

Powell said not everyone is pro-PongSat: "I've had NASA officials tell me PongSats are of no importance because they are round and too small. Big universities tell me PongSats aren't meaningful because they are free."

But the opportunities are very meaningful to the kids — and to Powell. "I know when we have a flight coming up, because hundreds of ping pong balls show up on my desk," he said.

Powell told me that it's not too late to get a pong-sized payload ready for the next mission in April:

"All anyone needs to do to sign up is to send an e-mail [to] with their contact information. If it's a teacher or group, they need to say how many they want to do.  I send them back ID numbers to write on their PongSat. At least a week before the flight they need to mail their PongSats to us. After the flight we send them back their PongSat along with a certificate, a DVD with launch and onboard video, a picture sheet and a mission sheet describing how high, how cold and other mission details.

"You should do one!

"On our website there is a users guide with info about how to cut a ping pong ball in half. and suggestions on experiments. My favorite is to put a mini-marshmallow inside. If we climb fast, it puffs up, filling the ball and becoming freeze-dried. If we climb slow, it gets cold before it hits vacuum and shrinks, then freeze-dries. It make a great analog climb rate indicator.

"Some of the PongSats have been getting pretty complex. About one-third are electronic, and two-thirds are the simple plant seed type of experiments."

Flying for free? That's not a bad deal for kids who have an interest in out-of-this-world science. Powell told me he's gratified to hear that more scientists are becoming interested in suborbital space research. "I just hope the scientists can catch up to the 8-year-olds," he joked.

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