Looking Down on the Middle East

Israeli hobbyists are launching camera-equipped weather balloons to view the region from the stratosphere

Yariv, a 31-year-old resident of Tel Aviv, planned to leave his local pharmacy with just a package of toilet paper rolls, but when the cashier offered him a digital camera for only NIS 30 more, he snapped one up. A few days later, the camera fell from the sky in western Iraq.

The object's journey began a few hours earlier, on the shores of Lake Kinneret, where Yariv and his friends attached it to a large weather balloon. The helium balloon rose to the stratosphere - 30 kilometers high, three times the altitude commercial planes reach. Until the camera crashed, 300 kilometers east of the launching site, the little transmitter attached to it sent aerial photos of Israel, Jordan and Syria to Yariv and his buddies' home computer.

outer space
Robert Harrison / The Icarus Project

The project was apparently the first of its kind in Israel. It drew inspiration from the dozens of teams of students, teenagers, parents and their children who in the past decade have launched video and stills cameras dozens of kilometers high.

The results are spectacular. YouTube already has a category for videos that document the building of the camera package and the launch. From 30 kilometers high you can see the shimmering blue of the curving horizon fading into black space.

The technological premise is similar from project to project. You assemble a small package that contains a video or stills camera, GPS device, transmitter, small computer and parachute. Then just attach it to a big helium balloon and let go. The transmitter broadcasts live images and the GPS device finds the camera after it lands. All this equipment must contend with the unkind conditions in the stratosphere, where temperatures plummet to minus 50 degrees Celsius.

Or use a smartphone

Meteorological balloons have been launched into the atmosphere's upper regions for over a century, but the hobby only became accessible in recent years amid the falling prices of digital cameras and other equipment. Yariv and his friends spent $500 on their project, and some hobbyists have cut their expenses down to $150 by using smartphones instead of cameras or pricier GPS devices.

Another Israeli group recently put together a package they call a "space camera." Yariv and his friends are electrical engineers, and this group's members have space backgrounds. Yoav Landsman of Hod Hasharon is one of the leaders; he works at Israel Aerospace Industries. "The team came together through friends and social networks," he says, adding that his camera has no connection to his job.

Yoav Landsman, Elad Sagi, space camera
Nir Kafri

"It began with me and a friend I know from work, and after that we just looked for people who are experts in certain fields: Someone who can write software, someone who understands communications, someone who understands meteorology," he says. "There are five of us, and of course we have additional help from lots of people who contributed their know-how."

Landsman set up a blog to keep track of the project's progress. Now all that stands between this balloon and the upper stratosphere is authorization from Israel's Civil Aviation Authority and other bodies.

"We have to coordinate with the people in charge of firing ranges and air traffic control so that we don't go near Dimona," Landsman says. "Also, certain areas have to be closed to flights. A lot of authorities are involved in this story."

According to The Transportation Ministry, "Neither the Transportation Ministry nor the Civil Aviation Authority has any knowledge of such a hobby. Moreover, photography with cameras attached to meteorological balloons in an unsupervised and uncontrolled manner poses a danger to air traffic and is strictly forbidden."

Landsman says he and his friends are in touch with people at the Civil Aviation Authority, but for the moment they're trying to prove that the project won't be a safety hazard. Then they'll apply for permits. He says there is no way the plummeting package can pose a danger: "One of the things we need to prove to the CAA is that the parachute will really open."

Because of wind directions in and around Israel, anything that rises high into the air is likely to be swept eastward, so Landsman's group will probably have to wait until next summer when the winds die down.

At 30 kilometers, the low pressure causes the helium balloon to explode; the package releases a parachute. Because most transmitters can't send files like a live video feed, most of the pictures remain in the camera itself, so locating it is vital.