Two Toronto high school students launched a Lego man more than two dozen kilometres above sea level — and they have the pictures to prove it.
A few months ago, Mathew Ho approached his pal, Asad Muhammad, with a plan to use a weather balloon to to carry a camera high above the clouds. The 17-year-old Grade 12 students had heard about similar projects by students in the United States and Britain that had yielded amazing footage of near space.
"Right when we saw the videos, we were like: ‘This is definitely plausible, we can pull this off, too, if we really put our minds to it,'" Ho recalled.
Muhammad has been fascinated by aviation since childhood, and more recently by the videos that got Ho thinking about their eventual project.
"That really got me into space things," Muhammad said.
Once the plan was hatched, the students from Agincourt Collegiate Institute started working out the details for putting their plastic astronaut in space. Over a period of a few months, they came up with a design for a capsule that would carry four cameras and their Lego man mascot above the clouds.
Cameras on the cheap
They combed the online listings on Craigslist and Kijiji to get their cameras on the cheap. Then came the parachute, which they decided to sew themselves.
"We had no experience at all using sewing machines and, as you can see, the stitches they are not really good," said Muhammad. "But it was a pretty perfect parachute."
They stuffed the cameras into a capsule made of Styrofoam, along with a GPS-equipped cellphone that would help them find their creation when it fell back to Earth.
They attached the Lego man carrying a Canadian flag to their capsule, which Ho said was to inject "a sense of personality" into their project.
After months of preparations, launch day arrived about two weeks ago.
There were some rocky moments as they tried to launch the helium-filled balloon in freezing rain, which Muhammad called "the worst enemy" for a weather balloon. And Ho admits he and Muhammad were anxious about whether they would ever see their capsule again. But in the end, it all worked out.
The eye-catching images captured from the flight show the Lego man gripping a Canadian flag against a backdrop of a fast-shrinking skyline that gives way to the darkness of space.
Then the balloon pops and and it tumbles back to Earth. Ho and Muhammad were able to recover the balloon — with their astronaut intact —more than 120 kilometres from the field where it was launched.
Muhammad said he was confident the Lego man would make it above the clouds, but he was not so sure it would survive its landing.
"I was afraid that when it lands, it might land on the side and the Lego man would come off," he said. "But it was strong enough that it wouldn’t come off in the air."